This Weekend, Kim Jong Un Will Be Heard, Unlike His More Elusive Father : Parallels At North Korea's first Workers' Party Congress in 36 years, Kim declares "unprecedented results" in recent nuclear and missile tests. He's shown greater willingness to speak publicly than his father.
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This Weekend, Kim Jong Un Will Be Heard, Unlike His More Elusive Father

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This Weekend, Kim Jong Un Will Be Heard, Unlike His More Elusive Father

This Weekend, Kim Jong Un Will Be Heard, Unlike His More Elusive Father

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

North Korea's highest political body is meeting for the first time in 36 years. The Worker's Party Congress is expected to endorse the leadership of Kim Jong Un. That would formalize the rushed transition to power that followed the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

As NPR's Elise Hu reports, the elder Kim was very different from his son in one respect.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: North Korea's propaganda machine is the most pervasive in the world, doing its best to control public perception.

JEAN LEE: They're very good at crafting the images of their leaders.

HU: Jean Lee is an American journalist who opened the Associated Press's Pyongyang bureau. Much of her time in Pyongyang overlapped with the final years of the late Kim Jong Il's rule.

LEE: He was widely quoted saying that he felt that it was best to keep the enemy in the dark. The less he was out there, the less his enemies would have to use against him.

HU: So despite all the propaganda touting Kim's achievements and even video showing him speaking to the public, the sound of his voice was almost never broadcast.

LEE: He never gave a public speech. There are no recordings of a public speech.

HU: And there's only one recorded statement to the public, says researcher Curtis Melvin from the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins.

CURTIS MELVIN: He uttered one line at a parade, long live the Korean people's army.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG IL: (Foreign language spoken).

MELVIN: And that's it.

HU: That's what made Jean Lee's encounter a few years ago with a display in far northern North Korea so surprising.

LEE: Kind of wondering off in a museum by myself when I spotted this Toshiba TV monitor with a picture of a painting and a caption in Korean that said Kim Jong Il giving a speech on juche ideology. Juche is their philosophy of self-reliance. So of course, I pressed the play button on the stand, and lo and behold, there was a voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG IL: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: So I did tape a little bit of that and then was quickly hustled away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG IL: (Foreign language spoken).

LEE: In that clip, he's talking about revolutionary ideology. So what we're doing now is trying to find the exact speech, exactly where and when he gave these speeches.

HU: Lee and her researchers believe it was given in either 1974 or in 1980 - historically important.

LEE: That was the last time North Korea held a Party Congress is in 1980.

HU: For the first time since then, Pyongyang is hosting another Worker's Party Congress. Thousands of the regime's most trusted insiders are meeting through the weekend. Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, who wasn't even born when the last Congress was held, is presiding. He's expected to cement his authority. To do so, Curtis Melvin says he'll be heard.

MELVIN: He's never been shy to stand in front of people and use his voice.

HU: A stark contrast to his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG UN: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: That's Kim Jong Un opening 2016 with his annual New Year's address. His public persona is being shaped to appear a lot more like his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who was known as a gregarious man who mixed often with the people.

MELVIN: A lot of North Koreans are still nostalgic about the Kim Il Sung era, and obviously, Kim Jong Un has tried to model himself on his grandfather rather than his father.

HU: Call backs to the eldest Kim may be wise, Lee says.

LEE: They want to go back to a happier time in their history and associate Kim Jong Un, their leader, with that happier time in their history.

HU: The challenge going forward will be getting reality to match all the messages coming from the top. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

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