Assessing Kim Jong Un’s 10-year Rule and Possible Future
Prof Rajaram Panda

The month December 2021 marked the 10th anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power following death of his father, the late Kim Jong Il, on 17 December 2011. He ruled from 1994 to 2011 and died of a heart attack at the age of 69. At that time when the 20 years+ young assumed the leadership of the authoritarian state, doubts were raised almost immediately by North Korean watchers if the young leader had the real potential to rule and thus widely felt that his rule will be short-lived. However, much to the surprise to his doubters, Kim Jong-un soon launched the ruthless path to spread fear to consolidate his control over the regime.[1] In the process, Kim is now safely placed to rule for a long time. At this point of time, it is time to evaluate his decade of rule, what he has achieved, where he has failed and what appears to be in the store for the future.

There are some striking developments that one cannot avoid noticing. He has conducted nuclear tests by defying UN sanctions, conducted many missile tests and constantly upgraded their capabilities, threatened North’s immediate neighbour South Korea with attack, driven the people to penury as precious resources are diverted to weaponisation, purged many military leaders seen as potential threat to the regime, and in the process consolidated his power. He even executed his own uncle, Jang Song Taek, husband of his father’s sister, once seen as Number 2 in the power hierarchy, and made his own sister as virtually the second in command. The execution of Jang opened the chapter of the ‘politics of fear’.

The enigmatic leader even responded to his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in and had summit meetings with him. He went further in responding to the initiatives of Moon to have three summit meetings with then US President Donald Trump in Singapore, Panmunjom and Hanoi to discuss the denuclarisation plan. Nothing worked and Kim did not bend from his position. Even for some time, he disappeared for months giving rise to rumours if he were alive and then sprang a surprise by resurfacing and sending the message that his control at the helm is intact.

One overwhelming aspect of his regime is that he has allowed the people to go hungry even as the economy remains debilitated. In fact the country is facing the triple whammy of international economic sanctions, Covid-19 pandemic and natural disaster. This is far from what Kim promised when he assumed power that his people shall never go hungry.

The country remains opaque despite Kim might have drawn some lessons on the benefits of freedom from his education in Switzerland but his choice is more of repression as the only means to secure regime stability. The flicker of freedom allowed to business operations under strict government control did not yield the desired outcome. Being wary of the influence of foreign influence “corrupting” the people, Kim choose a policy of remaining isolated as he feared foreign cultures would shake his grip on power. In particular he was harsh on those who watched South Korean TV dramas and pop music.

Amid all these, Kim went ahead with his nuclear programme and missile launches. In the face of international criticisms and warnings, he conducted four nuclear tests and fired off more than 90 ballistic missiles and other flying objects, some overflying over Japan’s southern island of Hokkaido. His goal to possess such weapons of mass destruction is not only to enhance deterrence but increase his bargaining leverage with the US to obtain some sanctions relief. Such a policy has been at the expense of huge cost as three summit meetings with the US made no progress and the economic sanctions remain where they were.

With such a policy firmly in place, it is unlikely Kim will change his policy and North Korea is destined to remain in such destitute state for a prolonged period of time since Kim in the 30s might stay in power for considerable time unless some serious health issue creates a different scenario. If this is the likely scenario for the future, the US, South Korea and Japan shall have no alternative but to continue making efforts to draw the leader of the reclusive regime to the negotiating table. It would be politically incorrect to underestimate the staying power of a dictator firmly in place and it is but definitely the dictator would take recourse to more drastic means if the situation warrants and if he ever fears any threat to the regime. Past experiences have demonstrated how ruthless he could be and if his own uncle could be executed on suspicion that he was becoming bigger than his boots, then no one is safe in the country. Continuing to engage with the leader is the only alternative and a mixture of soft and hard approach need to be carefully crafted without making the situation messier.

So, the dynastic rule of the third generation continues and Kim’s grip remains unchallenged. By executing hundreds of people and purges targeting family members and the old guard, Kim’s ruthless consolidation of power has made him a larger-than-life personality. This has been packaged by carefully packaged TV propaganda and this has made his authority absolute.

The question that remains unanswered is that since amid the crushing sanctions and pandemic if Kim is unable to make a fine balance between his pursuance of nukes and improving a moribund economy, will he be able to sustain his rule for long.[2] Here, opinions may vary but as it appears that as of now Kim is firmly settled in his place without any imminent threat to his regime.

Kim did achieve modest economic growth in the initial years of his rule but soon got derailed when he started prioritising development of nuclear and missile programmes and that dented the growth in the economy. His anger was directed at the US and its allies in Asia who were determined to defang him. That hardened Kim’s position, resulting in the failure of the summit meetings with Trump.

Though the summit meetings with Trump failed with no positive outcome, Kim scored a diplomatic victory having sat across the table with the President of the United States as equals. This was one of his many objectives he was aspiring for and indirectly obtained legitimacy to his rule from the most powerful nation of the world. He however failed to achieve the other most important objective of securing sanctions relief as Trump made this conditional on the part of Kim to give away his path to nuclear and missile development programmes. In the meantime, the outbreak of the pandemic put extra strain on the ailing economy. Kim’s border closure to check the spread of the coronavirus, though saved some lives of the country, dealt a debilitating blow to the economy. This self-imposed lockdown crippled trade with China, its only major ally and economic lifeline.

Things did not move for the better when Joe Biden succeeded Trump as the next US President as Biden preferred not be in excessive hurry to engage with Kim unless he was willing to abandon his nuclear weapons programme. But this is something which Kim is keen to posses as his “treasured sword” and as the biggest guarantee of survival. There has been no change to his first public speech as leader in 2012 when he said openly the regime’s priority to secure the regime at whatever cost. Kim has lived up to that commitment during the past decade of his rule.

How Kim combines the three issues such as nuclear weapons programme, economic revival ravaged by the pandemic and regime stability remains to be seen. If the nuclear issue remain unresolved and economy continues to ail, stability of the regime could be at stake as restive people could become uncontrollable despite that Kim would continue to use his long stick to quell any disquiet that might threaten his regime. If US sanctions are not removed, the economy might not revive. So, the choice for Kim will be between pursuing his nuclear weapons programme and the economy going further downhill with the sole aim of securing his regime. There could be always a situation when the threshold could be breached when the public disquiet could be so overwhelming that Kim’s continuance could be unsustainable. Such a scenario seems more plausible as Biden administration shows little priority to address North Korea’s nuclear issue as Trump was.

Two other factors here come into reckoning. South Korea will have a new President in early 2022 as Moon’s one-term in office ends. If a hardliner succeeds Moon, he might reverse Moon’s moderate policy to reach out to Kim. That possibility could unfold an entirely a new scenario. The new Korean hard-line President, if elected, can join with Japan to make Kim’s stay more difficult.

That leaves out China, North Korea’s only ally. So far, China has kept North Korea afloat because of its own strategic considerations. No one can guarantee this to continue if China works out a rapprochement with the US to secure its long term interests. In such a situation, North Korea will find itself as friendless. So, can Kim afford to continue his aggressive spending on nuclear and missile developments and thereby risk his own political future? That is a million dollar question for which there is no easy answer.

The situation is not propitious for Kim. Because of the pandemic and border closures, North Korea’s annual trade with China declined by two-thirds to $185 million up to September 2021. This resulted in food shortages. Prices of goods soared. Medicine was in short supply. Water-borne diseases like typhoid fever increased very fast.

Since North Korea has rejected any overtures and argues that the US must first abandon its “hostile policy” and reacts to the annual US-South Korea military exercises as rehearsal for invasion, it is extremely unlikely that Kim is not going to surrender its nuclear weapons, no matter what. Kim probably expects that there would be no improvement in US-China confrontation anytime soon. This assessment probably makes Kim feel that North Korea’s strategic value to China will increase. In any case, it is unlikely that China will abandon North Korea and will keep it afloat. Kim would then find less compelling reason to negotiate with the US from a position of weakness. Beijing is most likely to ensure that Pyongyang does not face an acute crisis which in turn will embolden Kim to continue pursuing his policy of repression to keep his regime safe.

So, Kim is likely to continue his “politics of fear” with punishment on flimsy ground becoming the norm. In order to strengthen his power base, Kim’s decade in office has been marked by mercilessly replacing top-ranking personnel, sacking or even executing high-ranking cadres. [3] More recently, 12 persons were publicly executed for watching South Korean pop music in order to send a message to the people at large that such foreign influences are not allowed to “pollute” North Korea’s indigenous culture.

How did Kim Kim observe the 10th death anniversary of his father Kim Jong Il that heralded his own rule?
Kim called for greater public loyalty so that he would be able to steer through the pandemic-related hardship and thus navigate the country out of this difficult situation.[4] Kim has already consolidated his firm grip by draconian measures and his one decade of rule has not shown any sign of political instability. This is not to say that this long-term stability shall remain unquestioned if Kim is unable to address to the ongoing difficulties. [5]

While observing his father’s 10th death anniversary, the Kim regime banned its citizens from laughing, shopping, and drinking as a part of 11-day mourning. [6] All leisure activities were banned for 11 days and violators were sternly dealt with. Even a citizen was prohibited to celebrate his/her own birthday if that fell during the mourning period.

Seen from all aspects, it transpires that Kim Jong Un is firmly in place with strong grip over the reins of power. It is destined to remain isolated without much contact with the outside world, barring China, its all-weather ally. The denuclearisation does not seem to have any future as neither the US nor Kim is ready to bend. If with all the repressive policies North Korea could survive, Kim only shall be emboldened to be more ruthless if he sees any signs of threat to his regime. Thus the dynastic rule seems to remain in place for quite some time. Kim has already groomed his own sister for possible successor since his own children are young. The world seems to have no choice but to live with Kim at the helm for quite some time.

Citizens visit the bronze statues of their late leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 16, 2021, on the occasion of 10th anniversary of demise of Kim Jong II.

Endnotes

[1] “N. Korea remains isolated 10 years after Kim Jong Un took power”, The Asahi Shimbun, editorial 20 December 2021, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14506025
[2] “North Korea’s Kim at critical crossroads decade into rule”, The Asahi Shimbun, 13 December 2021, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14501115
[3]Ha Yoon Ah, “North Korea continues to practice “politics of fear” as Kim Jong Un marks 10th year in power”, 16 December 2021, https://www.dailynk.com/english/north-korea-continues-practice-politics-fear-kim-jong-un-marks-10-year-power/
[4] “North Korea marks 10 years of Kim Jong-un with calls for greater loyalty to his son”, 17 December 2021, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/north-korea-marks-10-years-of-kim-jong-un/572a74e0-a231-4714-892c-a12f569206f2
[5] “North Korea calls for unity on anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death”, The Asahi Shimbun, 17 December 2021, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14504542
[6] “North Korea bans laughing, drinking and shopping for 11 days; Here's why”, 17 December 2021, https://www.livemint.com/news/world/north-korea-bans-laughing-drinking-and-shopping-for-11-days-here-s-why-11639721921465.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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