North Korea Stages Coming Out for Heir Apparent

Since the day it was founded, North Korea has been puzzling. It is a closed society and extremely poor with a huge military, and it's quite determined to become a nuclear power.

Over the weekend, there was a coming-out party for the grandson of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. On a viewing stand above a portrait of the nation's founder, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un watched the largest military parade in the country's 62-year history this past weekend: 16,000 troops.

These parades take place every five or 10 years in North Korea but what makes this one different is us. The North Korean government has invited the western media in, not only to see the country flex its military muscle but to send an important symbolic message about its future, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod.

Some of the missiles say "Defeat the U.S. military." It's a carefully choreographed roll-out of Kim Jong Un, who's been tapped to take over when his 68-year old father, who looked frail, eventually steps down or dies.

Thought to be in his late 20's, Kim Jong Un, educated in Switzerland, a huge fan of American professional basketball, he is virtually unknown, even to the people here. He had never even been named by the official state media until last week. Nut the North Koreans we spoke with, always in the presence of a government minder, were approving.

Calling the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, "larger than life" is actually an understatement here in North Korea. His image dominates all parts of life. The question is: Will the people of North Korea one day be building a statue of his grandson?

"To keep this dynasty going, they really need to make Kim Jong Un into almost another cult-like deity, because North Korea is more like a cult than it is a country," said Wendy Sherman, vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group.

It's difficult if not impossible to know what the average North Korean thinks of the regime in a country with wrenching poverty. One-third of the children here are stunted by malnutrition, according to the United Nations.

We asked Jang Sol Hyang, our guide at a flower show in Pyongyang, if she'd seen the parade on television. She said, "It's wonderful, isn't it?"

She was quite chatty until we asked about the heir apparent. When asked what she thought of heir apparent Kim Jong Un, she said, "Let's go upstairs and have a look first."

If the point was to gain wide exposure for Kim Jong Un's debut, the North Koreans succeeded. More than 100 reporters from 18 countries have been covering it. That's highly unusual if not wholly unprecedented.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.