Kim Jong Il attends military parade with heir apparent

North Korean dictator and son appear in public for celebrations commemorating the 65th anniversary of founding of ruling Workers' Party.

311_Kim Jong Il with son Un (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Kim Jong Il with son Un
(photo credit: Associated Press)
PYONGYANG, North Korea — 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.
RELATED:North Korea's Kim visits China, teachers sayHermit Kingdom joins Twitter, YouTubeIt 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 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.
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.
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.