The thinking behind Kim Jong Un's
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[November 30, 2017]
By Hyonhee Shin and James Pearson
SEOUL (Reuters) - On an icy December day in
2011, North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un was accompanied by seven
advisers as they escorted the hearse that carried his father, Kim Jong
Il, through the streets of Pyongyang.
None of the men remain with the young Kim. This October, he demoted the
last of his father's aides, both men in their nineties. They were among
around 340 people he has purged or executed, according to the Institute
for National Security Strategy, a think tank of South Korea's National
Intelligence Service (NIS).
Kim, "obviously a madman" in the eyes of U.S. President Donald Trump,
has completed a six-year transition to what the South calls a reign of
terror. His unpredictability and belligerence have instilled fear
worldwide: After he tested a "breakthrough" missile earlier this week,
he pronounced North Korea a nuclear power capable of striking the United
States. But a closer look at his leadership reveals a method behind the
At 33, Kim Jong Un is one of the world's youngest heads of state. He
inherited a nation with a proud history, onto which a socialist state
had essentially been grafted by Cold War superpowers to create a buffer
between Communist China and the capitalist South. Under Kim's father,
the economy was mismanaged, and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet
Union eliminated an important source of support. Up to three million
To consolidate a weak position, the young leader has been cultivating
three main forces: military and nuclear power, a tacit private sector
market economy, and the fear and adoration of a god. To this end, he has
executed two powerful men and promoted one young woman – Kim Yo Jong,
his younger sister, who Korea-watchers say is also Kim's chief
propagandist. She is Kim's only other blood relative to be involved in
politics: His elder brother, Kim Jong Chol, was rejected by their father
Over the five years to December 2016, Kim spent $300 million on 29
nuclear and missile tests, $180 million on building some 460 family
statues, and as much as $1 billion on a party congress in 2016 –
including $26.8 million on fireworks alone, according to the Institute,
which employs high-level defectors.
"Yes, he has replaced many top commanders and officials so easily and
ruthlessly killed some of them, which could make you wonder if he's
sane," said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korean leadership expert at the
Institute of Unification Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
"But this is a historical way of governing that can put you in power for
a long time."
(Graphic - Kim family tree: http://tmsnrt.rs/2AJM8F1)
(Graphic - Purge and launch: http://tmsnrt.rs/2ApSfhC)
In ancient days, Pyongyang was the capital of a mighty empire, Koguryo,
the root of the modern word "Korea." Going back through history, the
Great Leader concept is a blend of several ideas handed down through
time: an almighty god, the Confucian worship of a parent, and a king
with the Mandate of Heaven, according to Lee Seung-yeol, a senior
researcher at the National Assembly Research Service in Seoul.
Lee, a leading North Korea leadership researcher, said the state's
theory of succession means Kim the younger's rise should have been
completed while his father was alive: Kim's father was anointed 20 years
before he took over, giving him time to build allies and a leadership
Kim Jong Un had just three years as leader-in-waiting.
Born in 1984, he was third in line for power and a fractious,
competitive child, according to Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who
worked for the family and one of the few people to recount meetings with
the young Kim. In his memoirs published in 2010, Fujimoto, who now runs
a sushi restaurant in Pyongyang, said Kim once snapped at his aunt Ko
Yong Suk for calling him "Little General." Kim wanted to be called
When Kim Jong Il knew his young son would soon succeed him, researchers
have said, the father took several measures to protect the boy. Lee said
these included shifting the country's power base to create rivalry
between the elites so Kim the younger could play one group off against
Kim Jong Il had declared the military the country's supreme power – a
policy known as songun, which means "military first." At a party
conference in 2010, he changed the setup so the military had to compete
with the party administration for the leader's favour.
"POOR MAN'S WEAPON"
Military strategy was the first thing Kim changed. His father had used
the promise of nuclear disarmament as a bargaining chip for aid, and in
February 2012, young Kim started in his father's footsteps, promising to
freeze North Korea's nuclear program in return for food aid from the
But weeks later he changed tack, saying North Korea would fire a
long-range rocket. "The negotiations were carried on as the legacy of
Kim Jong Il," said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean envoy to talks in
2011 that contributed to the February deal. "Since then his strategic
thinking has shaped up."
In Kim's view, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were
fatally weakened by not having nuclear weapons, North Korean media say.
"History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest
treasured sword for frustrating outsiders' aggression," the official
KCNA news agency said in an editorial in January 2016.
North Korea is racing to achieve a nuclear deterrent because the state
feels threatened, worrying particularly that Kim may face a fate like
Gaddafi. The Libyan leader agreed in 2003 to eliminate his weapons of
mass destruction; in 2011, he was killed by rebels that the United
States and its allies had supported.
Months after Kim's accession, North Korea updated its constitution to
declare itself a nuclear weapons state.
One leading pallbearer at Kim Jong Il's funeral was Ri Yong Ho, Chief of
the General Staff of the Korean People's Army. Kim sacked him in July
2012. South Korean intelligence later confirmed that Ri had been
By December 2012, North Korea had carried out another, successful,
In 2013, Kim outlined a new policy: The "byungjin line," or parallel
development, to combine the nuclear buildup and economic growth.
[to top of second column]
North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un looks on during the memorial
for late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, in this still
image taken from video December 29, 2011. KRT via Reuters TV/File
A nuclear deterrent is essential to that, says Thae Yong-ho, North
Korea's former deputy ambassador to London, who staged a
high-profile defection to South Korea in 2016. The threat of
absolute destruction makes a nuclear bomb a "poor man's weapon" with
which to tighten control of the country and ensure long-term rule,
"Once he has assumed control of usable nuclear weapons, he has more
room to allocate resources more flexibly, and allocate the military
forces for civilian construction," said Thae.
North Korea spends about a quarter of its GDP on defense: Russia's
President Vladimir Putin has said Kim Jong Un would have his people
"eat grass" rather than give up its nuclear program.
But with a legacy of famine, Kim also says he wants to boost
The former chef, Fujimoto, said that on one summer break from school
in Switzerland in 2000, the young Kim was preoccupied with a visit
to Beijing his father had made.
"Let's talk," Fujimoto recalled the future leader saying over drinks
on his father's private train. "I hear from higher up that China
seems to be succeeding on many fronts – engineering, commerce,
hotels, agriculture - everything," Kim said. "In many ways, don't we
need to take them as a model example for us?"
In 2012, shortly after taking power, Kim went a small way to mimic
reforms China made in the 1980s. Farmers were allowed to keep most
of the harvest. State enterprises were given the right to buy and
sell at market prices and to hire and fire workers. Private
entrepreneurs and traders were encouraged to invest in state
projects or with party and military entities. Kim also began to turn
a blind eye to informal markets – a force his father tried in vain
That April, Kim addressed the nation - the first time in 17 years
North Koreans had heard the voice of their leader. "It is the
party's steadfast determination to ensure that the people will never
have to tighten their belt again," he said.
Outsiders hoped the reform signaled a new political openness as Kim
drove to promote the North in the world: In 2012 Antonio Razzi, an
Italian senator for Forza Italia who calls himself the only Italian
to have met the leader, said Kim had asked him to find training
facilities for soccer players in Italy.
"I have talked with many (North Korean) local leaders," Razzi said.
"They have no plan to attack anybody. North Korea is interested in
nuclear only as a form of defense."
Kim worked to ensure the economic freedom would not unseat him.
Also escorting his father's funeral car in 2011 was Jang Song Thaek,
an administrator at the vanguard of the reforms. He was married to
Kim Jong Il's sister, was a special envoy to China and had overseen
a host of new Special Economic Zones all over the country.
In December 2013, Jang was hauled out of the Politburo in front of
the cameras and accused of plotting a coup. "Jang dreamed such a
foolish dream," state media said, adding Jang hoped his reformist
plans would help him "get 'recognized' by foreign countries."
Jang was shot "dozens of times" by an anti-aircraft gun and his
remains removed with a flamethrower, according to South Korea's
National Intelligence Service (NIS) – an account no one has
From that point on, Kim honed his personality cult. On the day
Jang's purge was announced, North Korea's official daily the Rodong
Sinmun unveiled a song dedicated to Kim Jong Un, titled "We Know
Nothing But You." More were to follow.
The next year, Kim also ordered school textbooks be revised to focus
on idolization of himself and include images of nuclear weapons and
missiles, according to the NIS-affiliated Institute for National
The idolization campaign kicked into high gear in 2016, focused on
pop culture and youth: Kim's chosen female singers, the Moranbong
Band, staged a series of musical performances and plays calling for
loyalty to the leader, while the Shock Brigade, a crew of young
North Koreans in charge of major economic construction, produced
about 1,200 poems and other literary works, the Institute said.
"He has linked his own legitimacy to improving the economic
situation in the country," said John Delury of Seoul's Yonsei
University. "Kim Jong Un wants to become a development dictator."
At home, he casts himself as a bringer of plenty. In 2015, almost
half the times he was photographed were at economic events, data
from Seoul's Unification Ministry shows. Only this year, as his
weapons tests multiplied and met an angry response in the United
States, have military appearances come back into prominence.
Standing tearfully behind Kim Jong Un at their father's funeral was
his younger sister, 28-year-old Kim Yo Jong. On the same October day
that Kim dropped the last two of his father's aides, he included her
in his Politburo. Kim Jong Chol, their elder brother, leads a quiet
life in Pyongyang where he plays guitar in a band, according to
former ambassador Thae.
"I think Kim Jong Un has been making good use of the existing
system, while strengthening his power base and dictator regime in a
very shrewd manner," said Lee Su-seok, a research fellow at the
Institute for National Security Strategy.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and James Pearson; Additional reporting
by Giselda Vagnoni in Rome and Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo; Edited by
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