Few were betting on him when on December 19, 2011, the North Korean television announcer Ri Chun Hee, dressed completely in black, announced between sobs to the world the death of Kim Jong Il, which occurred two days earlier. Kim Jong-un, the youngest son and successor to the Dear North Korean Leader, was a near-complete stranger, about whom little information was known for sure. That he was about 27 years old and lacked experience in governing the most secretive nation in the world. Many analysts considered that he would be little more than a puppet in the hands of more experienced men, such as his in-law uncle Vice President Jang Song Thaek, or that he would not last long in power.
A decade later, Kim Jong-un has proven to be much more than the caricature with which he is often portrayed in the West: a bloody, obese, nuclear-weapon-obsessed tyrant. The third supreme leader of the Kim dynasty steadfastly leads his country, where he has impressed his own style of leadership: folksy when he wants, ruthless when he needs it. Very different, in any case, from that of his father, marked by the terror that the fall of the Soviet Union could be repeated in his regime.
With him at the helm, North Korea has managed to complete its nuclear program. It has reestablished ties with its long-time ally, China, from which it had distanced itself. But its precarious economy, after a few years of growth and relative modernization, is once again reeling under the weight of international sanctions and the Covid pandemic. And human rights continue to suffer horrendous violations.
Upon assuming power that December 2011, that young man who spent his adolescence in Switzerland “got down to work from the first moment,” explained Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst for Korea in a recent videoconference organized by the Stimson Center. , “He moved quickly to show that he had his own ideas, and in fact some of his initiatives involved criticism of Kim Jong Il.”
His first blow to the table, and the demonstration that the young man was not going to be a puppet, came in 2013, when he ordered the very public arrest of his uncle at a Workers’ Party assembly and his subsequent execution. In this way, he was getting rid of a dangerous rival, at the cost of cooling down for years his relationship with China, the neighboring country and the main economic partner, with which Jang had excellent relations.
The second, equally cruel blow would come four years later, in the midst of escalating tension with the United States, and would also feature a member of his family who could overshadow him: his older brother Kim Jong Nam, whom he had killed with nerve gas at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.
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The young Kim has made use of an extensive propaganda apparatus to cement his leadership and project his image on the same level as that of his father and, above all, of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of the regime. “His public image was based on Kim Il Sung, at least for the first few years. He dressed in a similar way, uttered similar phrases in his speeches, attended public events accompanied by his wife (Ri Sol Ju), as did his grandfather, ”says Rachel Minyoung Lee, from the Stimson Center. “But he created his own brand.”
A brand, according to Lee, characterized by his willingness to delegate to others, including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who represented him at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and appears to hold the reins of relations with Seoul. And for his pragmatism: “It is clear that Kim Jong-un is more concerned with results than ideology or words.” Unlike his predecessors, the young supreme leader publicly admits the existence of problems. In October of last year he tearfully apologized to the population for not being able to offer them a better standard of living; in 2021 it has recognized the breach of the five-year plan.
“We no longer see him being treated as a myth,” says Lee, “unlike his father, whose official propaganda states that when a double rainbow was born it lit up the sky, or his grandfather, the protagonist of impossible feats in the fight against the Japanese.
The youngest of the Kim leaders has also chosen to rely less on the Armed Forces, which “cannot effectively defend and sustain economic reforms,” according to Carlin, and more on the Workers’ Party of Korea. If your father proclaimed the beginning songun, or the Armed Forces first, since 2013 he has applied the strategy byungjin, or simultaneous development of the nuclear weapons program and the economy.
Although the West is mainly associated with its nuclear program and numerous missile tests, since the beginning of his term, Kim has made the economy one of his top priorities. As soon as an incipient agrarian reform came to power, it gave companies and farms greater autonomy to make decisions and facilitated public-private activity. Under his rule the jangmadang, the informal markets that emerged during the famine of the 1990s.
In Pyongyang, the capital reserved for the privileged of the regime, throughout these ten years new housing complexes of futuristic design, water parks, recreation centers have emerged; even a dolphinarium. Cell phones became frequent; Taxis multiplied. Young elites got used to drinking cappuccinos in one of the cafeterias that opened in the center of the city. By 2016, South Korea estimated that the North had achieved growth of 4%, the highest in two decades.
With this model he aspired to guarantee the support of a population that, although with enormous limitations, is increasingly informed about what is happening outside the country and the scenes of prosperity in China or South Korea, either through its connections with the power or through cross-border contacts smuggling South Korean cultural products.
But the development ran into a strong obstacle: “The country reached nuclear state capacity and had to face sanctions,” says Yang Un Chul, of the Sejong Institute in Seoul. In 2017, as tension between Washington and Pyongyang escalated and the North Korean regime turned its missile tests into an almost weekly event, the UN imposed three new rounds of sanctions against North Korea.
At the end of that year, the country successfully completed its first test of a hydrogen bomb, with a power of 160 kilotons, and of an intercontinental missile. Kim Jong-un declared his country’s nuclear program complete, the great ambition that his father and grandfather failed to see.
2018 was the year of diplomacy for his regime. A first approach to the Government of Moon Jae In in South Korea, facilitated by the celebration of the Winter Games, led to three inter-Korean summits in just half a year. And the first face-to-face meeting between a North Korean leader and a US president, the unpredictable Donald Trump. If only months ago Kim exchanged the most colorful insults with him (“rocket man”, the American rebuked; “old cunt”, replied the North Korean), the histrionic tenant of the White House came to assure then that “we have fallen in love” .
But that meeting in Singapore, which Washington hoped would lead to a process to denuclearize North Korea, turned out to be a missed opportunity. The resulting vague statement of intent was not translated into concrete deeds. The next summit, in Hanoi in February 2019, ended early and with a resounding failure. The third, on the Korean border in June of that year, was nothing more than an impromptu coup by Trump at the last minute.
Since then, negotiations between the world’s leading power and the tiny nuclear power have remained fallow. Joe Biden’s US administration has shown little interest in getting them back.
And the North Korean economy has suffered the blows. Multiple. International sanctions have aggravated its isolation, in which China is emerging as the main exception. Several typhoons, the result of climate change, have destroyed their crops and damaged their infrastructure. The pandemic caused the country to keep its borders completely closed for almost two full years. This has allowed it to keep the number of covid infections within its territory at zero, at least officially, but it has also devastated the little foreign trade that exists and has blocked the entry of foreign currency. The South Korean central bank estimates that the North’s economy contracted by 4.5% year-on-year in 2020.
Despite the challenges, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to change course. The North Korean leader considers the nuclear program the life insurance of his regime, which protects him from attacks from abroad. If he gets rid of him – fear me – he could end up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. “Their nuclear weapons are too precious to be easily disposed of,” according to Park Jong Chul of South Korea’s Daejeong University.
This implies that sanctions will continue for the foreseeable future. There is also no indication that anti-pandemic measures will be relaxed. The regime has already warned its citizens that they are facing the “toughest situation” so far. It has tightened social controls and measures against the “vicious cancer” of foreign culture. Since January the economy has been re-centralized, while developing new weapons, including a suspected hypersonic missile. “North Korea is bracing itself for prolonged difficulties into the future,” says Lee.
Meanwhile, Kim, who has lost notable weight this year, maintains his tight grip on the country, with no hint of defiance of his power. Without a discernible heir – his children are still very young – his 37-year-old still faces decades of rule ahead.
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