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N. Korea leader dotes on army as nuclear crisis deepens

SEOUL -- From inspecting washrooms at remote army bases to posing for photos with adoring troops, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, is making the military rounds in an apparent attempt to polish his army credentials amid the deepening nuclear crisis with the United States.


The secretive leader had been absent from public appearances in the North's normally doting state-controlled media since Oct. 30, when he was seen greeting senior Chinese leader Wu Bangguo in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

But the "Supreme Commander" resurfaced last week with a visit to Unit 350 of the Korean People's Army and has since captured the country's headlines with a flurry of other garrison trips.

It's little surprise that Kim has finally broken his media silence with a parade through seven army units in almost as many days, North Korea specialists say.

The communist government in Pyongyang is a stalemate with Washington over restarting international talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. And the army visits are seen as a time-tested tactic to galvanize support among the military and emphasize Kim's resolve in standing firm against the United States.

Yesterday, the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper dedicated its whole front page to Kim's visit to Unit 3993, where he doled out automatic rifles as gifts and expressed pride that his soldiers "always live full of optimism and joy wherever they are stationed," the North's official news agency, KCNA, reported.

"He's clearly projecting an image to the outside world that he's taking care of the military first and showing resolve in a straightforward way that he will not be giving up as far as the nuclear issue is concerned," said Paik Haksoon, a North Korea specialist at Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank.

News of Kim's Dec. 9 visit coincided with North Korea's rejection of a US-backed plan that would bring the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and the two Koreas back to the negotiating table. North Korea wants a deal that would trade aid and security guarantees for the dismantling of its nuclear program. But talks have bogged down because the United States says North Korea must first give up its nuclear weapons.

The six nations have been trying to organize a round of talks for weeks. They had been aiming for this month, but now hope for a meeting in January. North Korea upped the pressure yesterday, saying that delays in establishing new talks would only prompt the communist country to speed up its development of nuclear weapons.

Kim's trips to army outposts, where he chats with troops, poses for photographs, and tours barracks, mess halls, and kitchens, are not seen as menacing. But they help highlight his military's loyalty and readiness and, in turn, his grip on political power in times of diplomatic turmoil, Paik said.

During his most recent trip, Kim dropped in on a technical lecture room to see a training session, gave a pep talk to soldiers on guard duty, and praised the troops for keeping their posts "neat and tidy." All the while, Kim was flanked by army generals who form the backbone of his communist regime and its "army first" doctrine.

Kim rules not as prime minister or president, but as chairman of the National Defense Commission.

He disappeared for nearly seven weeks during the outset of the war in Iraq.

Now, Kim seems to be using strategically-timed appearances to strengthen his rule, said Kim Tae-hyo, a professor at South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

"If he says something or suddenly appears in the nation's TV or newspapers, that will always dramatize North Korea's domestic and international politics and show that they are staying very alive vis-a-vis South Korea and the United States," Kim said. "It is of utmost importance in consolidating the military regime."

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