[Viewpoint] How bright will Kim Jong-un shine?The world is paying attention to every move of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un. Recently, he shocked the world with the sudden purge of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the top military commander. He then made public appearances with a young woman. The North’s media finally solved the mystery and identified her as Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju.
At the U.S. State Department press briefing room, the spokesman and journalists joked about the latest announcement about the first lady, asking if anyone was invited to their wedding. Chinese media are also trying to find out the correct Chinese characters for her name. At the National Assembly, the National Intelligence Service briefed lawmakers on her age and career.
The world appeared to be fascinated by the news of Kim. For the first time in a long time, the refreshing image of a young leader was highlighted in the news, not the usual gloomy stories about the country’s nuclear arms development and food shortage.
In fact, “image politics” have a long history and tradition in the North. A few years ago, a defector in his 40s described Kim Il Sung, the late founder of the North’s regime, as a “gentle and refined” man. He escaped the North because his life there was unbearable, but he still spoke positively about Kim.
According to the defector, Kim is known among North Koreans as a leader friendly to the people. On top of his experience as an independence fighter against Japan, there are many “legends” about him creating the new social system by working with the farmers and laborers during the course of building North Korea.
In 1960, Kim was known to have spent 15 days working and having discussions with farmers when he set the “example of Cheongsanri.” He was also known to have suggested the “alternative business system” in 1961 after a long discussion with laborers.
Kim also took his son Kim Jong-il to various public events throughout his childhood. He clearly emphasized the image of a “faithful father,” although he was handling many difficult tasks while building the North.
The defector, however, gave a harsh evaluation of Kim Jong-il in comparison to his father. Kim Jong-il was described as a picky, fearful and selfish man. Kim’s background appeared to have influenced the evaluation. He grew up as a leader by gaining control over the Organization Department and Propaganda Department of the Workers’ Party. He also purged many high-ranking officials to establish the “monolithic leadership system” by making his father the one-and-only leader Suryong. He also made and promoted strict guidelines called “Workers’ Party Life.” He, therefore, was a subject of fear to the people who failed to please him.
His family life was also not received positively by the public because of his love affair with Song Hye-rim, an actress who was already married. He also had many women in his life, showing an unfaithful image to the public, rather than the image of a family man.
But the North officially highlighted Kim’s image as a hard-working leader who worked tirelessly for the country. The North also stressed that he was a leader with strong love for his father and who defended the country during serious crises.
In contrast to his father, Kim Jong-un took after his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s style. He highlighted his physical resemblance to his grandfather. During site inspections, he moved outside of the planned scenarios. He made a surprise visit and found malnourished soldiers and criticized their commander. He also visited an amusement park and pulled weeds and criticized the poor management. He has been pointed out as a leader who pays attention to the North Korean people’s hardships in everyday life.
In terms of government policies, he is also following in the footsteps of his grandfather in the early 1990s. At the time, Kim Il Sung opened the Rajin Special District and stressed the importance of trade. He also invited powerful politicians to the North including Shin Kanemaru, then vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He also sent Kim Yong-sun, an international department director of the Workers’ Party, to the United States in a move to improve relationships with the West.
Although the tone of Kim Jong-un’s foreign affairs policy is yet to be defined, he recently refurbished the laws governing investment and sent economists and economic public servants overseas. Anticipation is high that he could follow Kim Il Sung’s path.
Excessive cult of personality practices are commonly seen in authoritarian countries where the power is focused on a single person for a long time. Still, the image of Kim Jong-un could be an opportunity to bring a new energy to the dark, gloomy North Korean society. But it is also true that image politics won’t be enough for the North to overcome its hardships. It remains to be seen if Kim Jong-un will actually live up to his bright image with equally bright politics.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin