Pyongyang: Clapping, waving and even cracking a smile, Kim Jong Il`s heir apparent joined his father Sunday at a massive military parade in his most public appearance since being unveiled as North Korea`s next leader.
Kim Jong Un, dressed in a dark blue civilian suit, sat next to his father on an observatory platform at Kim Il Sung Plaza as tanks carrying rocket-propelled grenades and long-range missiles rolled by as part of celebrations marking the 65th anniversary of the reclusive state`s ruling Workers` Party.
It was a momentous public debut for Kim Jong Un less than two weeks after he was made a four-star general in the first in a series of appointments that set him firmly on the path to succession, which would carry the Kim dynasty over the communist country into a third generation.
Just days earlier, the world got a first glimpse of the son from photos published in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. However, Sunday`s appearance was carried live by state TV, beaming him into North Korean households and giving the people their first good look at the future leader.
Seeing the two Kims side by side above a huge portrait of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, and later waving to the crowd, drew raucous cheers of "Hurrah!" and some tears from North Koreans attending the parade in the heart of Pyongyang.
"Kim Jong Il! Protect him to the death!" "Kim Jong Il, let`s unite to support him!" they chanted as the 68-year-old leader walked the length of the platform, appearing to limp slightly and gripping onto the banister.
The Kims later also appeared at a nighttime celebration in Pyongyang that exploded into a grand spectacle of fireworks, patriotic music and color.
Historical footage of Kim Il Sung played on big screens as thousands of dancers below performed intricate choreographed routines. At one point, the dancers seemingly transformed the stadium floor into a vast sea of ocean waves, then a field of trees moments later.
The earlier parade was said to be the nation`s largest ever, an impressive display of unity and military might for a country known for its elaborately staged performances that suggested bigger celebrations than just the Workers` Party anniversary.
Thousands of troops from every branch of North Korea`s 1.2-million-strong military, as well as from naval officers` academies and military nursing schools, goose-stepped around the plaza decorated with banners and flags to the accompaniment of a military brass band and ordinary citizens waving plastic bouquets.
Tanks and trucks loaded with katyusha rocket launchers and grenades rolled past. They were dwarfed by the series of missiles that paraded by, each larger than the last and emblazoned with: "Defeat the US military. US soldiers are the Korean People`s Army`s enemy."
"If the US imperialists and their followers infringe on our sovereignty and dignity even slightly, we will blow up the stronghold of their aggression with a merciless and righteous retaliatory strike by mobilizing all physical means, including self-defensive nuclear deterrent force, and achieve the historic task of unification," Ri Yong Ho, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean army, said at the event.
However, the parade was probably less about showing off its military might than about introducing the heir to the North Korean people and building up his image as the next leader, according to Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea analyst at South Korea`s Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
"The parade served as a sign that the military has loyalty to the successor," said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korea at Seoul`s Dongguk University.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported Sunday that the parade included three never-before-shown types of missiles and launching devices.
One was thought to be a new "Musudan" intermediate-range ballistic missile with a long, narrow head, similar to a ball-point pen, NHK said. It has a range of 3,000-to-5,000 kilometers (1,860-to-3,100 miles) and would be capable of hitting Japan and Guam, NHK said.
South Korea`s Defense Ministry said it could not immediately comment on the report. Call to South Korea`s top spy agency seeking comment went unanswered on Sunday.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul, said the parade showed that Kim Jong Un is a military heavyweight — and marked his diplomatic debut, noting the presence of foreign diplomats. He said he expected the son to make a trip to China and begin carrying out diplomatic activities.
One thing was clear: The regime wanted the world to see the man dubbed the "Young General," and was willing to let in international journalists to capture the moment after more than two years of virtually closing its borders to foreign media.
A select group of media outlets was allowed into the country to cover the festivities, and were given front-row seats at the two events where the Kims appeared: a performance of the Arirang mass games spectacle Saturday and the military parade.
Sunday`s appearance was a heady debut for the mysterious young man who until two weeks ago was a virtual unknown outside North Korea`s inner circle of military and political elite.
The question of who will take over leadership of the nuclear-armed nation of 24 million has been a pressing one since Kim Jong Il reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008.
Kim Jong Il himself became leader when his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994 in what was the communist world`s first hereditary transfer of power. There were concerns of a power struggle if Kim were to die without naming a successor.
The leader`s Swiss-educated youngest son had emerged in recent months as the rumored front-runner to inherit the mantle of leadership, despite his youth and inexperience. There were reports that children were singing odes to "the Young Commander" and that his January birthday had been made a national holiday like those of his father and grandfather.
Kim Jong Un won his first military post with the promotion to general late last month, and was appointed during the Sept. 28 political convention to the Workers` Party`s central military commission, as well as the party`s Central Committee — strong signs he was being groomed to eventually succeed his father.
Kim is believed to be in his 20s. Kim Tae-hyo, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak`s deputy security adviser, told a Seoul forum last week that he is 26, born on Jan. 8, 1984.
In South Korea, along the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, activists protested the succession movement in the North.
"North Koreans, wake up and resist the people`s murderer Kim Jong Il`s shameful three-generational hereditary succession of power," read one banner.
Activists sent some 20,000 leaflets packed with $1 bills and CDs carrying an anti-Kim Jong Un rap songs floating across the border into North Korea in hopes of reaching ordinary North Koreans, according to Park Sang-hak, a defector who now lives in Seoul.
On Sunday, Kim Jong Un was poised in public, every inch his father`s son in both looks and demeanor, joining his father in raising a hand to salute the troops parading past.
"I`m deeply impressed; everybody`s feeling like me," one North Korean guide told us, tears in his eyes. "It`s my first time to see Kim Jong Un and my third to see Kim Jong Il."
He called the current leader a "decisive, powerful and independent" man who gave the nation the courage to rise up following Kim Il Sung`s devastating death and to persevere through the flooding of the 1990s, economic troubles and sanctions. He said seeing the man dubbed the "Young General" gave him confidence for the future.
"He`s very young and powerful and strong," he said, asking that his name not be used. "He`s very intellectual, and his knowledge is profound and deep, I`ve heard. The future of our country will be brighter."