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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea media play up military angle in Kim coverage

Failed Hanoi summit triggers flurry of arms-themed reporting

Kim Jong Un attends a test of a large multiple rocket launcher in North Korea in a photo released in September by the official Korean Central News Agency.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- State media reporting on North Korean autocrat Kim Jong Un took on a more martial flair in 2019, reflecting Pyongyang's heightened tensions with the U.S.

Kim appeared in a militaristic light 30 times through Dec. 26, according to Radiopress, a Japanese news agency that specializes in monitoring the regime. The military-slanted reporting accounted for 27.5% of the 109 instances in which state media featured Kim during 2019.

Military news coverage of Kim occurred only eight times in 2018, for just 6% of reports about the leader, the lowest proportion during his reign.

Many state media reports on Kim during 2019 recounted development of new weapons. The young leader would observe missiles firing and order further research and more tests.

Pyongyang switched focus in 2018 from nuclear weapons development to building the economy, spurred by active negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea over its arsenal and the heavy sanctions levied on the North by the United Nations Security Council.

But a turning point came in February 2019, when Kim held the failed summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi. North Korea fired a new short-range ballistic missile in May, the first such test in 17 months.

Through the end of November, North Korea fired projectiles 13 times. These included a submarine-launched ballistic missile and "super-large" rocket launchers. In late July, Kim was shown inspecting what is believed to be a new submarine capable of firing three SLBMs.

Apart from military affairs, media coverage of Kim featured him visiting special tourist zones under construction. Kim inspected the resort project at Wonsan, as well as a hot springs resort in South Pyongan.

One report showed Kim ordering the demolition of aged facilities at the Kumgangsan tourism complex, a symbol of bilateral economic cooperation with South Korea.

Tourism is exempt from the U.N. sanctions, and Pyongyang has used the locations to lure Chinese visitors and the foreign currency they carry.

In October and December, Kim traveled to Mount Paektu, a landmark bordering China regarded by North Korea as the "sacred mountain of the revolution."

State media showed Kim riding a white horse amid a snowy landscape. He expounded on the virtues of "self-reliance" and the site's "indefatigable revolutionary spirit."

Kim apparently visited Paektu to evoke his direct descent from grandfather Kim Il Sung, who was the isolated country's first leader. North Korean history says that Paektu was the base for Kim Il Sung's campaign against Japanese occupation. Emphasizing this heritage could bolster Kim Jong Un's rule amid the lengthy sanctions.

State media reports of Kim involved foreign relations in 32 instances during 2019, equaling 29.4% of the total coverage. But that represents a drop from 64 reports in 2018, or 48.1% of that year's coverage.

Reports about Kim concerning China appeared 11 times, followed by nine with Russia. The U.S. and Vietnam garnered six apiece.

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