As his first year as Supreme Leader concludes, analysts have an overall mixed reaction to Kim Jong-un’s style of leadership. Promises of economic reform, innovations in propaganda that has made it more outward facing in nature, and the introduction of a first family with his marriage to Ri Sol-ju are just three of the highlights of the newest Kim’s first year. While the regime has survived countless crises both economic and political, how can it continue to persist in isolation while the rest of the world becomes ever more integrated? Is there a place for a market economy in the world’s last purely Stalinist state?
Kim Jong-un promises big things: Economic prosperity. Military strength. National reconciliation. But is this just more window dressing to disguise the business-as-usual nature of the Kim regime?
The successful test of an Unha rocket and the placement of a satellite into space were touted as national achievements of historic importance. Indeed, they were historical achievements for a nation constantly facing starvation.
It is hard to determine whether the launch of the rocket was intended for a domestic or international audience.
While his father Kim Jong-il would routinely use such acts of brinksmanship to intimidate others into providing the DPRK with aid, the successful rocket launch this year may be more for the domestic audience than the international community. It could be interpreted as an action intended to solidify the youngest Kim’s credentials for leadership.
By literally reaching into the heavens and placing something amidst the stars, Kim Jong-un is solidified in his people’s view as the true heir of Kim Jong-il and, most importantly, the Eternal-President Kim Il-sung.
This is why it is not surprising to see Kim Jong-un dressed like the Eternal President. Under the Kim Il-sung era, North Korea achieved its apex as a nation.
Following the devastation of the Korean War, and with generous and abundant aid from the Soviet Union, North Korea rebuilt itself into a communist state along Stalinist lines. It was moderately prosperous with heavy Soviet subsidies (so much so that it once had a higher per capita GNP than the Republic of Korea – a fact that today is impossible to imagine).
While Russia’s assistance in the aftermath of the Korean War helped rebuild North Korea from the ashes of devastation, Kim Il-sung walked away from the Korean War experience slightly embittered towards his large northern neighbor. Initiating the war on the command of Stalin, Kim Il-sung expected assistance from the Soviet Union that never materialized. Of course, historians largely agree if Stalin had entered the Korean War on the side of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that it would have led to World War III.
Initially Kim had great success in his campaign to reunify South Korea with the North, capturing over 2/3 of the country before the United States intervened on behalf of its ally in the RoK.
What transpired over the course of the next three years was one of the most brutal wars in modern history that saw the United Nations combined force with over 50,000 casualties and the allied forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with 1.5 million casualties.
The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea than during the entirety of World War II, and all of them concentrated on a land mass the size of the state of Mississipi in the US. The loss in the war and the devastation it brought to North Korea led to the development of a peculiar indigenous political doctrine called Juche or ‘self-reliance.’
Determined to never again face defeat at the hands of their enemies and in the hopes of future reunification by force with the Republic of Korea, Kim Il-sung constructed a war machine centered on his ideology preaching national peculiarity and purity.
Using Confucian themes and tropes, Kim Il-sung appropriated Korean traditions for his regime’s own purposes as he became patriarch of the nation. With Suryong (parental-leader/ Kim Il-sung) in charge, and the proper officials in place under him, the North Korean family could do whatever task it could imagine. In the Confucian terminology, with heaven in hand, Kim Il-sung could move mountains.
The entire state is centered on this idea of self-reliance and resistance of foreign influence and invasion. Years are marked since the birth of Kim Il-sung, Juche year 1.
Mobilization extends to all areas of life and a position in the military is not only prestigious but a way to secure food in times of scarcity. The stockpiles of munitions, fuel, and weaponry is unknown, as are many things about North Korea, yet there is little doubt the nation is ready to bring the fire if the drums of war sound.
There were hints in the early 1990s that Kim Il-sung had decided on a reformist course but then he died suddenly of a heart attack, throwing the entire nation into existential crisis as it was a cult of personality unlike any established before it elsewhere. The media made much ado about Kim Jong-il’s mourning but one glance at the historical footage quickly reveals that it paled in comparison to the histrionics that accompanied the Suryong’s passing.
Kim Jong-il rejected attempts at reform and instead drove his nation forward on a military-first (Songun 선군정치) course that placed the development of national defense capabilities (nuclear weapons) above all things including social welfare and economic progress.
Kim Jong-il’s gambit proved successful when the DPRK detonated its first nuclear weapon on October 6, 2006 – raising international ire and stoking fears of a regional arms race between it, China, the Republic of Korea, and Japan.
The Kim regime then parlayed this energy into high-stakes brinksmanship games with the international community in order to extract concessions and aid from them. From this point on until his death in 2011, Kim Jong-il ratcheted up the pressure on the international community by engaging in further tests and even acts of aggression such as the sinking of the Cheonan (천안함침몰사건 – Cheonanham Chimmol Sageon) on March 26, 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island (연평도) on November 23 of that same year.
Kim Jong-un has thus far not engaged in nearly the level of international brinksmanship that became characteristic of his father, instead choosing to reform North Korean pop culture with the Moranbong Band, inspecting theme parks with his wife, delivering public addresses, and using the Supreme People’s Assembly as a vehicle for delivering his programme.
The resurgence of the Workers’ Party of Korea (조선로동당) is one marked change of Kim Jong-un’s regime over that of his father who placed primacy on the National Defence Commission and the military. The softer face of the regime contrasts sharply with that presented consistently during his father’s era. Yet, all that glimmers is not gold and all that sounds of reform may be nothing more than flowery language.
Navi Pillay’s report to the United Nations Human Rights Commission detailed the experiences of North Korean political prison camp survivors. Survivors of the kwan-li-so told the UNHRC tales of death and depravity with mass executions, starvation, and generational imprisonment just a few of the horrific features of life in the kwan-li-so. In Pillay’s estimation, the first year of Kim Jong-un’s rule has shown no change in the status of these prisoners.
Additionally, while agricultural reforms are being slowly introduced, North Korea still faces regular crises of shortages of food stuffs and medical supplies. Medical care is virtually non-existent in the nation and is even difficult to obtain in the showcase capital Pyongyang.
Human rights are unheard of and the freedoms enjoyed by many democratic nations are impossible institutions in the Juche state. It remains to be seen if Kim Jong-un can balance the need to develop his country with the Juche call for self-reliance which has thus far proven a disaster.
Under Juche, North Korea has established a songbun system which is, in essence, a communist caste system: powerful members of the political elite belong to a caste and bear children capable of being leaders and attending the nation’s best academies while political undesirables and their progeny live lives of perpetual punishment for doubting the Supreme Leader. This system, and all its attendant evils, is still very much alive and strong in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.
It would be unrealistic to expect major changes any time soon, but it remains to be seen if Kim Jong-un’s hopes for reform are viable in the face of the world’s most brutally totalitarian regime. One thing that is often touted about North Korea in spite of its many problems is its resilience.
Will Kim Jong-un have the political will to discard aspects of a regime that have preserved his family’s power for three generations? Or are we perhaps wrong in assuming that the youngest Kim seeks the preservation of the Red Dynasty, at all costs, as his father was inclined to do.
Indeed, as in the past, so many things depend on the personalities and choices of so few people. Untold suffering and hardship, as well as progress and hope, are all under the control of one man in North Korea – and that’s exactly the way Juche wants it to be.