SEOUL – A decade after the death of his father, Kim II, the crown rests heavy on the head of North Korea’s Kim III.
The country is silent today, as it remembers December 17, 2011, the day Kim Jong Il died from a heart attack. That left his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, holding the helm of one of the world’s most unusual nations: A tightly insulated, post-communist, semi-capitalist, semi-socialist, ultra-militarized de facto monarchy.
The third generation of that monarchy holds power in a state established under Soviet auspices in 1948 with the first member of the ruling dynasty, Kim Il Sung, at its head. Since then, no non-Kim has held power – nor looks likely to.
Despite his youth at accession, the latest Kim, now 37, is firmly entrenched.
Kim Jong Un spent the first seven years of his reign establishing his governance and eliminating domestic rivals, while upgrading the nuclear arms he had inherited from his father, and adding the delivery systems – intercontinental ballistic missiles – that can convey them to the United States.
The price? A massive investment of scarce economic resources and a regimen of international sanctions that gained significant teeth in 2016.
Then, in 2018, Kim reversed course as he stormed, beaming, onto the world stage in a diplomatic charm offensive that saw him summiting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in before – in a show unprecedented in diplomatic history – he sat down with a sitting US president, Donald Trump.
These diplomatic fireworks sputtered out after Trump exited a 2019 summit with Kim, leaving engagement in tatters. The descent of Covid-19 added ever-greater woes to an already sanction-battered economy as the country retreated into bunker mode, closing its borders to a tighter and longer degree than at any time previous.
This may explain why, as of early this year, Kim was pushing a new ideological/policy line.
After inheriting songeun (military first) from his father, he promoted byungjin (dual track development of the economy and nuclear arms). But early this year, immin jeil jui (putting people first) was gaining increasing traction.
Few observers would agree that Kim is truly prioritizing the welfare of his people – who are among the poorest in the region when it comes to prosperity, rights and freedoms. But when it comes to handling the key problems facing his regime, Kim has chalked up significant wins.
Successes and failures
His nuclear arms program would appear to effectively deter the US from military adventurism, while also granting him relevance on the global stage. Likewise, watertight border controls and internal state security appear to be keeping ideological pollution from South Korea – a society far freer and more prosperous than the North – at manageable levels.
And experts believe the measures his medically challenged state deployed against Covid-19 have likely been highly effective.
But Kim has also suffered policy failures.
Ambitions to raise prosperity have been stymied by both those sanctions and pandemic containment. And as the rest of the world applied sanctions, North Korea’s ever-heavy economic dependence upon China increased.
South Korea, joined at the hip to America, is unable to break sanctions, while caution about Southern influence limits Kim’s acceptance of assistance. And Southern investment – non-existent now, but at its height in the noughties – never expanded beyond sanitized border zones.
These are major Catch-22s which – absent a seismic shift in policy – are likely to plague the remainder of Kim’s reign.
However, that reign will – on previous form – conclude with his peaceful death, with his reform-resistant regime intact.
Man of mystery, diplomatic star
“In the beginning, he was an unknown, mysterious young leader,” Moon Chung-in, a noted South Korean academic who has advised three separate South Korean administrations on North Korean policy, told Asia Times.
Indeed, very little was known of Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, though astute Pyongyangologists in Seoul had identified him as successor before his name was mentioned in North Korean state media. It was known that he had been partly educated at a Swiss boarding school and gone on to tertiary studies at the Kim Il Sung Military Academy.
The early appearances of this unknown quantity marked him as very different from his father, who only ever spoke once in public and who operated mostly behind closed doors.
State media showed Kim grinning as he met troops, workers and children during “on the spot guidance” visits nationwide. His hefty weight – which he has shed in recent months – and idiosyncratic wardrobe, many believe, were modeled on his illustrious grandfather, who initiated the Korean War.
Many also believe his trusted younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was his key image manager.
Accession was no bed of roses.
“For him, the major problem is survival,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times. “When he became leader without a political base of his own, it was expected that he would be pushed aside by the old heavyweights, but he was not purged. He purged.”
In 2013, Kim had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, executed for reasons which remain shadowy, but are likely tied to the latter’s economic power base and possibly his ties to power players in China.
In 2017, Kim’s older, semi-exiled half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed by nerve gas in an extraordinary assassination in Kuala Lumpur.
In 2016 and 2017, North Korea’s nuclear and ICMB programs expanded by leaps and bounds. All this impacted Kim’s image.
“In 2017, he was portrayed almost as a madman, which Trump used, calling him ‘rocket man,’” Moon said. “Then in 2018 he abruptly changed, becoming a darling of world mass media.”
An astonished globe watched as a man previously painted as an obese, murderous dictator was seen charming the socks off the South Korean and US presidents. (Perhaps tellingly, his meetings with China’s Xi Jinping looked less chummy.)
“He showed off his talent, maturity and diplomatic savviness,” Moon, possibly the only South Korean who has attended all inter-Korean summits, said. Moon admits he was personally impressed by Kim, who he considers respectful, shewed and pragmatic, with a strong priority on not just signing, but implementing agreements.
While North Korea certainly has a well-earned reputation for defying the international community and for endlessly breaching trust, neither South Korea nor the United States has kept its commitments to North Korea.
Others who have met Kim told Asia Times he was charismatic, charming and well briefed.
Pyongyangologists are broadly divided on the Kim-Trump dalliance.
The antis say the mission was doomed from the start, as North Korea would never, under any circumstances, meet the US demand that it denuclearize. The pros say that Kim put a workable plan on the table in 2019, which could have led to a process of trust-building and a mutual, step-by-step processs, and Trump was mistaken in walking away.
Either way, it looks over. US President Joe Biden has evinced little interest in meeting Kim, nor has he prioritized policy toward North Korea.
This raises the question of whether Kim’s efforts with Trump – widely reported in North Korean state media – led to a loss of face among his people.
“His record in diplomacy is a mixed bag, but I don’t think North Koreans are disappointed with Kim, as he surpassed his father and grandfather by having meetings with a US president,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute, told Asia Times. “The overall view of the US in North Korea is one of skepticism.”
Still, the failure of engagement, and the subsequent pandemic, have pushed Kim back into his bunker. “Since 2019 he has become a ‘hermit king’ again,” said Moon. Even so, he is working on his image.
Market forces, political ‘normalization’
“At home, he has been trying to project an image as a people-loving leader,” Moon said. “He has moved to people-first policies from military-first policies.”
North Korea does not publish economic data and overseas assessments are problematic. Even so, most believe the economy improved during the early years of Kim’s term.
Survival markets, or jjangmadang, became a feature of North Korea under his father, when they were permitted by the state as a mechanism to counter the famines of the 1990s. Post-famine, these genies could not be put back into the bottle.
They became key loci of economic intercourse as they shifted from food and medicines to all manner of consumer goods, a process that upped cross-border trade with China.
A new class of investors – donju (“money masters”) – appeared.
Under Kim Jong Un, the donju have shifted from markets and trade to public-private partnerships and to light manufacturing of goods for local sale. This is revitalizing chunks of North Korea’s moribund state industrial sector, while providing a new source of consumer goods for a heavily sanctioned economy.
Kim was behind the trend of improving lifestyles. His wife, Ri Sol Ju, is believed to be a donju, and Kim has promoted the building of ski courses, water parks, sauna resorts, new apartments and the like – projects aimed at upgrading the lives of his core elite.
While all these developments have been taking place in open sight, and Pyongyang has clearly permitted them, they fall into a legal gray area, offering the state heavy leverage.
But since the imposition of the 2016 sanctions, foreign investment, barely a trickle to begin with, has almost entirely dried up. With one exception: Chinese penetration of the economy, notably in natural resource extraction, from coal to seafood, has increased.
Meanwhile, in terms of governance style, Kim has shifted authority away from the generals, and back toward the party, holding a much wider number of meetings and plenums than his secretive father ever did. Moon considers this process a “normalization” of government function.
Covid successes, ongoing crackdowns
An unexpected force has fortified closure and further restricted freedoms in what was already a closed, oppressive, society: Covid-19.
Though few doubt that North Korea – which has not yet declared a single case of the novel coronavirus – is Covid-free, pandemic control is one area where the tightly controlled North Korean system might be more effective than the free and open South Korean system.
“North Koreans have been arguing that their quarantine is better than South Korean quarantine,” Moon said. “Though North Korea has very poor infrastructure [that limits transport and interaction], which is one of the best preventative measures.”
Lankov told Asia Times last year that while North Korea may lack medicine and medical equipment, it has a very high ratio of doctors to population, and that police states can close any area and contact trace aggressively with no popular pushback.
Even so, containment measures came “at a huge cost to quality of life,” Moon said. “North Korean media admits they are in very extreme difficulties.”
It is not only state media. Specialist South Korean and Japanese media that supply smartphones to North Koreans in border areas report enormous hardships.
Yet a return to the murderous famines of the 1990s looks unlikely, thanks to an across-the-border lifeline of fuel and food.
“China has come in and provided basic survival means,” said Lankov. “It is enough to prevent famine, and without famine the country will remain stable, and stability is what the Chinese want – the last thing they want is a famine and maybe a revolution inside North Korea.”
This increased dependence upon China, “is not good,” in Kim’s eyes, Lankov reckons. “But it is tolerable.”
Meanwhile, at the state level, there have been new policies on the private sector in recent years. Again, Pyongyangologists are divided on Kim’s motives.
Moon is of the opinion that the moves to reign in some donju are designed to remove older, and often corrupt, management, noting that – contrary to TV images of ancient, be-medalled generals – many key players in North Korea are now in their 30s and 40s.
Chad O’Carroll,the publisher of Seoul-based specialist media NKNews, believes Kim is turning the clock back to a more authoritarian era.
The combination of sanctions and Covid containment, as well as crackdowns on some donju, has likely had an impact even on the elite whose favors Kim has wooed with waterparks and seafront apartments. But as Lankov notes, Kim’s elite is tied to his regime.
“The elite can live on soju without Hennessy cognac. What is their choice?” he asked. In the event of any overthrow or rebellion, “the elite will be executed, or imprisoned or end up cleaning toilets They are all cornered.”
The failure of US engagement; ongoing sanctions; and the economic woes created by Covid containment; may be encouraging a creeping process of state re-control.
“Recentralization has been going on since the eighth party congress in January,” O’Carroll told Asia Times. “They are trimming back the power of state-owned enterprises and making them much more responsive to state goals, rather than following their instincts on what business demands.”
O’Carroll notes that Kim’s early “experimentations” – inviting US basketball star Denis Rodman, having a popular band play the “Rocky” theme – have ceased; international media visits dropped off, and under Covid, have dried up completely. And more sinister machinations may be in play.
“He has gone back to a more classical Korea Workers’ Party ideology, and there has been a huge resurgence in the power and influence of the Ministry of State Security,” he said. “Defections, since Kim Jong Un arrived, have dropped off the face of the earth.”
Goh reckons that next year will see a return to ever-simmering peninsula tensions.
“I think next year, he will upgrade provocations,” he said. “I think they are making preparations to face a very hostile situation next year.”
For a regime that leverages external enemies to justify its rule, tensions are hardly bad news.
Moon, too, is concerned about the situation on the peninsular next March. Then, in the South, a presidential election will be fought out at the same time joint that South Korean-US military drills are expected to take place – drills that infuriate the North, which considers them invasion preparation.
Winning here, losing there
In a world in which many believe – even expect – dictatorial states to tumble, this may all make uncomfortable reading. But the stability of one-party communist states in China and Vietnam, and the ongoing existence of the rather more complex nation that is North Korea give the lie to this simplistic contention.
Kim has clearly been successful at ensuring the survival of his family, his regime and his elite.
America is deterred. South Korea is kept at arms’ length. And his people are insured against famine thanks to China, which supplies bare minimums of fuel and foodstuffs.
Granted, the ongoing sanctions regime means that the lives of the North Korean public look unlikely to improve in terms of their personal prosperity. (Not to mention in terms of their rights and freedoms.) Moreover, Pyongyang has no choice but to rely on Beijing – a humiliating dependency.
But these latter issues are not mission critical for Kim, suggesting he will occupy his familial/national throne for the foreseeable future.
“What he has not succeeded in is the cake, but he has succeeded with the bread and butter,” Lankov said. “I think we are on a long plateau that will last for years – even decades.”