Analysts: Secretive leader has developed from novice to political operative
Economy, security key areas of development for third-generation Kim
Since succeeding his father in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has impressed and confounded with his rise from political novice to adept operator.
Last month, the country’s political elite from Pyongyang and across the country descended on the capital for the Supreme People’s Assembly, a largely symbolic meeting which Kim attended in his role as chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Speeches at the event praised the “guidance of respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” according to North Korean state media KCNA.
As he is once again feted by the country’s political class, how has the young leader fared over the brief course of his rule?
Since taking the reins of power over five years ago, the scion of the Kim dynasty has done a remarkable job of consolidating his power and remodeling the country in his own image, says Choi Jong-kun, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Department of Political Science and International Studies in South Korea.
“We (are only looking) at five years of his leadership,” Choi tells CNN. “He’s trying a lot of things at the same time. He has reformed the economy far greater than his father, and hugely advanced the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities.”
Nick Bisley, executive director at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says security in the form of the nuclear program is a prerequisite to any serious attempt at North Korean economic reform.
“Only when they feel confident that they have their nuclear weapons and the security they have with that will we see economic reform,” he says.
“The most optimistic (outcome) is that it follows the China model – once secure it follows a China-style economic reform but (even in that case) we won’t see any political reform.”
Consolidation of power
Consolidating his power has been key to Kim’s rise, and much of this has been done in a brutal, bloody manner.
One report from South Korean think tank, the Institute for National Security Strategy, claims he has ordered the executions of at least 340 people since he came to power in 2011 – 140 of whom were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party.
Of all the killings, few have the notoriety of his execution of his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek in 2013.
Kim was an unknown quantity when he assumed power in 2011 and many watchers looked at him as being shepherded into power by Jang. His abrupt removal was a sign Kim was removing the last vestiges of the old guard, Bisley says.
“The demonstration of the power of the central figure– to say ‘you’re out,’ and you’re gone – is central to totalitarian regimes,” says Micheal Madden, associate at North Korea thinktank 38 North.
By making it particularly visible, with state media declaring Jang a “traitor for all ages,” Kim made sure there was no dissent to the decision.
“The way it happened, that they did this in state media, this is a Kim Jong Un characteristic,” Madden says. The high visibility of Jang’s removal brought to mind public purges not seen since the 1950s.
“A lot of people doubted the stability of leadership when Jang was arrested,” Choi says. “But I argued that his power was consolidated to the degree that he could purge his #2.”
Everything is pretty locked down for Kim now, Bisley says. “People who watch this closely think that the current phase of purging is done.”
However, the reported execution of five deputy minister-level officials in February of this year, who were working under disgraced state security chief Kim Won Hong, suggests that the purges may be still ongoing.
Key to securing his leadership is attaining the long-held goal of nuclearization. The regime is in the final stretch of a long program to obtain the weaponry, and with it the stature of being part of the exclusive nuclear club.
“There is a sense that nukes are a non-negotiable part of North Korean identity, security and place in the world,” says Bisley.
The country’s constitution was altered in 2013 to reflect its place as a nuclear power, and while both the nuclear and missile programs still suffer setbacks, there is a definite sense, globally, that it is only a matter of time before North Korea yields a small but effective arsenal.
Since Kim came to power, the program he inherited has leaped forward, says Choi.
The missile program has put satellites in orbit – albeit to a questionable degree of success – and “advanced its long-range missiles and (taken significant steps towards) the successful miniaturization of a nuclear warhead,” Choi added.
And while the leadership is still bound by loyalty to Kim, what has greatly benefited the weapons program is “professionalization,” Madden says.
“Kim Jong Un has promoted a lot of people who weren’t previously known… based on merit not loyalty,” which has allowed competency to rise to the top, he says.
Princeling or savvy young ruler?
While Kim took power at a young age, most of the inner circle remains a “gerontocracy,” says Madden.
Kim, who is understood to be in his early 30s – information about his birth year is not publicly available – is still the youngest guy in the room, agrees Bisley.
It is unlikely that a new generation is in a position to take over running things alongside Kim.
“Unless there’s a real political transformation, it’s going to continue to be loyalty to Kim,” Bisley says. It is the “first, most important and only currency for influence.”
However, he is changing some of the Stalinist tropes that characterized his father’s, and grandfather’s, leadership.
“Kim Jong Un hasn’t done much in terms of the perpetuation of the cult of leadership around himself. No lapel pins with his face on them; there is not a lot of great effort to portray him like his father and grandfather,” says Choi.
Choi likens the first five or so years of the Kim Jong Un era as the “booster” stage. During these early years he’s worked hard – and on often ruthlessly – to put the stamp of his leadership on the country.
And as the North Korean elite meet once again to celebrate the achievements of the party, Kim’s position as ruler of one of the world’s least-understood nations appears to be relatively unassailable.