Kim’s rule proves to be no differentIt has been almost two years since Kim Jong-un inherited his father’s authority and became the leader of North Korea. Since his childhood was quite different from his father and grandfather - he was educated in Bern, Switzerland for six-and-a-half years - we had high hopes for his ascendency. He had personally experienced liberal democracy and Europe’s market economy. So there had been considerably positive predictions that he would attempt flexible changes, if not full-on reform, like Deng Xiaoping’s China.
However, the anticipation turned into disappointment, and optimism is being fast replaced by negative forecasts. It is hard to find differences between this anxious 29-year-old leader and his predecessors, aside from the fact that he is accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol-ju.
The theory in international politics that Western-educated leaders in autocratic states do not necessarily pursue democratic rule seems valid in this case. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad studied in London from 1992 to 1994 but is mercilessly trampling on his citizens’ calls for democratization. Pol Pot, whose radical policies resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million Cambodians, studied in France from 1949 to 1953.
In the past two years, Kim’s rule can be summarized into three elements. The first is purging and hostility. The four generals that his father had assigned for him, including Ri Yong-ho, who accompanied Kim Jong-il’s funeral wagon, have all been purged. In the course of replacing his father’s authority with his own, merciless housecleaning began. Unstable authority is bound to bring about bloody purges.
Ironically, purging makes power unstable. In this case, the dictator would use the tactic to divert attention to the outside. With his innate aggressiveness, military education and intentional copying of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-un’s hostility is displayed in an excessively hard-line policy toward the South. In a recent National Assembly Intelligence Committee meeting, National Intelligence Service chief Nam Jae-joon reported that Kim Jong-un had frequently declared internally that he would attain armed reunification within three years. In September, 2012, Pyongyang revised the “detailed operational guidelines for wartime” and made a specific armed reunification plan by adding three instances in which North Korea can declare war.
The second is the construction of theme parks and recreational facilities. The Masikryong Ski Resort in Gangwon Province and the theme park in Pyongyang are his core projects. Some may argue that building recreational facilities for people should not be interpreted negatively. But when North Korea is short of three-months worth of food annually, it should be obvious that mobilizing the military to build a $1 billion facility in the mountains is just cruel. All he needs is an accomplishment to show off.
When the young leader approached aging bureaucrats asking why there were no theme park for the people, the cronies used the country’s limited resources to satisfy him. The budget that should have been used for economic development was wasted on expendable and unnecessary projects.
The third is the parallel pursuit of nuclear and economic development. Upon completing a third nuclear experiment in February, Kim Jong-un adopted contradictory policies to develop his nuclear program and economy simultaneously at the Workers’ Party convention. While he proclaimed simultaneous development, the core is to actively build refined and smaller nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. He has only slyly replaced his father’s military-first policy with an ambiguous title. Developing both the military and economy together is a vain slogan.
In the course of closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex in April, a move inspired by his lack of experience and rashness, he had to pay a high price for the impulsive and misguided decision.
Lately, he has been spotted smoking cigarettes during official events, and the bold yet nervous appearance may be an ominous sign that a provocation may happen on the Korean Peninsula.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.
By Nam Sung-wook