3 years in, North Korea's Kim appears firmly in control
SEOUL, South Korea — Three years ago, he was a question mark, so unknown that the world had to guess at his age.
Today, analysts still know little about Kim Jong Un, particularly in a reclusive outcast of a country that roars like a lion and tightly controls its media and people. It’s a volatile combination that leaves world leaders wondering and worrying about what’s really going on in Pyongyang.
Would Kim really use the North’s expanding nuclear weapons and missile programs to attack South Korea and the United States — knowing it would mean almost certain destruction of North Korea? Or might he sell such weapons to terrorists to prop up the poverty-wracked economy?
Or is he just a young guy who was thrust into power and is still learning the ropes in a regime where he has essentially been deified by the same machinery that created a cult of personality for his father and grandfather, a place where people spy on their own families and perceived deviation from the party line can mean life in a prison camp or execution?
About the only thing that analysts say appears clear is that Kim is firmly in charge for now, proving that a third-generation communist succession can work, at least in North Korea.
Kim assumed power following his father’s sudden death from a heart attack on Dec. 17, 2011. While there were faint hopes that the country might open up more and become less belligerent, they were overwhelmed by doubts that the young, chubby-cheeked ruler would exercise real control or be anything more than a figurehead in the family dynasty.
“He’s probably surpassed expectations, in pure power terms,” said John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul. “He came in as the youngest head of state probably on the planet, in a culture that values age and seniority and in a political system with lots of powerful people well over 60 years old.”
“It tells us a bit about him and a bit about their system — even if you’re young, whoever is in that function of hereditary ruler — lots of people are going to make it work,” he said.
Educated in Switzerland, Kim Jong Il’s youngest son and chosen successor was believed to be in his late 20s when he came to power. In the years since, he has been shown by North Korean state media accompanied by a wife and met with repeatedly with Dennis Rodman, a move that may say more about his penchant for basketball than his political acumen.
Kim is also the subject of “The Interview,” a U.S. film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, that depicts a plot to assassinate the dictator. The upcoming Christmas Day release of the film has prompted heated complaints from the North for months and led to speculation that Pyongyang may be behind that a cyber attack on Sony Pictures, which is releasing the film. The North has denied its involvement.
Experts say there are no signs that Kim will abandon the nation’s nuclear program or military-first policy, prompting U.S. government and military officials to repeatedly assess him as dangerous.
“Kim Jong Un, unlike his father, is overconfident and unpredictable,” U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said last month. “Realizing he cannot win in a conventional war, he has focused his military’s development on training on asymmetric capabilities…and I would tell you that the North Korean military is making progress in these areas.”
Analysts say Kim, now thought to be about 30, has matured as a leader, developing a style markedly different from that of his more reticent father.
Carl Baker, director of programs for Pacific Forum CSIS, said the North has tried to portray Kim as engaged and decisive, more similar in personality to the gregarious Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and revered founder of the country.
While the youngest Kim clearly has some of his grandfather’s personality traits, Baker said, it remains unclear whether he is a strong or weak leader, and whether the image put forth by North Korean propaganda meets reality.
“There’s a certain amount of confidence that you see in Kim Jong Un that I don’t think you ever saw in Kim Jong Il — that’s being willing to get out and go to the amusement park and show that public face of happiness,” Baker said. “Kim Jong Il was always serious, working and always discrete in how he moved around in public.”
“Part of it is personality, and the other part is just the fact that he’s young and that he was educated in the West. He knows how the rest of the world works, and he has a much better understanding of it,” he said.
Kim’s disappearance from the public eye for more than a month in the fall sparked rumors that he had fallen seriously ill, been ousted from power or faced a significant internal challenge to his authority. He reappeared in October, carrying a cane and smiling as he toured a housing complex.
Perhaps the most significant event in Kim’s tenure was the December 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle and close adviser.
Baker said Jang “clearly got on the wrong side of somebody,” but cautioned against drawing conclusions on why he was executed.
“I think one of the most puzzling pieces to me is what’s really happening with the replacement of senior people, and the appearance of these senior folks who sort of come and go,” he said. “Whatever happened with Jang Song Thaek and exactly what the relationship is with the different factions is something that I don’t understand, but I think it’s fairly important.”
Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute said Jang’s ouster “sent a very clear message to the people at home and abroad that Kim Jong Un is not a young and inexperienced leader.”
The reason for Jang’s execution is still debated by experts. Earlier that year, the North carried out its third nuclear test, opening a period of particularly virulent threats during U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The U.S. responded by sending nuclear attack submarines and flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth bombers to the peninsula in an unusually open show of force to the North.
Kim’s willingness to skirt the edge of war likely raised his stature both within the regime and abroad.
“By threatening war and missile attacks, he certainly became a leader who can risk anything, who can risk a war,” Paik said. “He turned from a young and inexperienced leader to a very threatening personality.”
The younger Kim’s biggest departure from his father is his emphasis on economic growth and a willingness to embrace small-scale economic reforms, from setting up special economic zones intended to draw badly needed foreign investment to allowing citizens to sell a portion of their produce in farmer’s markets, according to Chung-in Moon, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University.
In a country where international economic sanctions prevent the inflow of new capital, this “quasi-market function,” he said, “has become a kind of safety valve to Kim Jong Un.” Agricultural production has increased, and the markets “have been filling the gap left by the public distribution system,” he said.
“That relieved a lot of grievances from the public,” he said.
Paik said he saw small but noticeable improvements to the quality of life in the North during a trip to China in early November, when he traveled along the North Korean border.
On a similar trip in summer 2012, houses on the North Korean side were in poor condition, and he saw virtually no people. But last month, houses had been painted white and the rooftops were covered in golden corn that had been laid out to dry — a sign that the corn harvest had improved, and people weren’t worried about having their food stolen and going hungry.
Delury noted that no head of state has yet to meet Kim, even Xi Jinping of China, the North’s main benefactor — a sign that Kim is still consolidating his power and may not be ready yet to leave the country.
“At a diplomatic level, we haven’t really tested him out and seen what he’s like in a negotiation setting or a summit, so there are still some unknowns,” he said.
The only safe prediction to make is that Kim will change as he grows older. Delury said the main question is what forces, inside and outside North Korea, will be around to shape him.
“I think that’s the key thing, that he’s quite young, he’s still forming, he’s still getting his sense of how things work and who to trust. He’s going to be in a learning mode for quite a while,” Delury said. “I see that as a reason we’d want to be more engaged with him, to shape him in the direction we want him to go.”