It was not, perhaps, the image Kim Jong-un would have wanted to project in his first public appearance as the latest authoritarian leader of North Korea in 2011. As wailing citizens exhibited their grief along the snowbound streets of Pyongyang, Kim, then only in his late 20s, cut a forlorn figure.
Dressed in a long black coat, Kim walked with grim purpose alongside the hearse carrying his father, Kim Jong-il, one hand resting on the bonnet of the 1970s Lincoln Continental, the other executing an awkward salute. He was later seen crying and drying his eyes at the burial service, in footage broadcast on state television.
The younger Kim’s sudden ascent to lead an unpredictable, nuclear-armed nation on 17 December 2011 offered little indication of how – and for how long – he would rule the secretive state. Some observers predicted an early political demise for a young man who had yet to earn the loyalty of the inner circle of the ruling Korean Workers’ party and the generals of the country’s million-strong army.
The state machinery, observers predicted, would use the succession to exploit Kim’s inexperience, plunging the country and the world into unprecedented uncertainty.
Just two days into Kim’s leadership, Victor Cha, the former White House Asian affairs director, wrote: “Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together after the untimely death of its leader, Kim Jong-il.”
Others, more in hope than expectation, predicted a new style of leadership under the “cosmopolitan” Kim Jong-un, who had been educated at an exclusive Swiss boarding school and professed a love for NBA basketball. In the best-case scenario, its new, free-spirited leader would address the regime’s nuclear ambitions and appalling human rights record.
Now, as he embarks on a second decade in power, Kim leads a country assailed by international sanctions, natural disasters and the unprecedented challenges posed by Covid-19. A year that began with him being named general secretary of the Workers’ party – his late father’s title – has ended with fears over food shortages, the pandemic and the economy, with a return to nuclear talks only a distant possibility.
In October 2020, Kim offered an extraordinary public apology to the people of North Korea, tearfully acknowledging that he had failed to guide the country through difficult times. Faced with food shortages and more economic pain caused by the Covid-enforced closure of the border with China, he called on his people to embark on another “arduous march”, appearing to compare the situation to a 1990s famine during which hundreds of thousands of people died.
And yet, predictions that his regime is in danger of collapse are as hopelessly wide of the mark now as they were a decade ago.
A ruthless leader-in-waiting
Thirteen days after the death of Kim Jong-il, his youngest son was formally declared supreme commander of the Korean People’s army, a year after he had been briefly introduced at a military parade. That appearance confirmed that the then 26-year-old was preferred ahead of his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who had fallen out of favour in 2001 after an embarrassing encounter with Japanese immigration officials.
“It was a mistake for some people to assume that he would be a reformer,” says Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Being educated in the west does not automatically mean one will subscribe to democratic values. At the end of the day, it’s all about ensuring the Kim dynasty lasts forever, so it is only natural that Kim will do anything to maintain a firm grip on absolute power.
“Kim has maintained his grip on power through a combination of the regime apparatus, keeping the elites happy who help sustain a Kim family leadership system, and employing brutal practices to enforce loyalty and eliminate threats.”
Addressing the first major party congress in decades, Kim in 2016 outlined his byongjin policy – a vision of a North Korea that married economic development with acquiring status as a genuine nuclear power.
He also revealed a “tempestuous” side that, according to Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef, had marked him out as a leader-in-waiting when he was still a child. In 2013, he ordered the execution of his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful adviser who had walked immediately behind him as they mourned three years earlier. Jang would be just one of dozens of officials purged or executed by Kim, whose determination to tighten his grip on power had made him deeply distrustful of many of those around him, including his own family.
Sixteen years after his unsuccessful attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland, Kim Jong-nam was waiting to check in at Kuala Lumpur airport when two women – groomed by North Korean agents – smeared an oily substance on his face that turned out to be the nerve agent VX, one of the most deadly chemical weapons in the world. Twenty minutes later, he was dead. Few believe the assassination could have happened without the approval of Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-nam and Jang Song-thaek were not the regime’s only high-profile victims. In 2017, the world reacted in horror after the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who had been detained in North Korea, reportedly after attempting to steal a poster as a memento of his visit. Although details of his death remain murky, we do know that the 22-year-old university student was medically evacuated from North Korea on 13 June that year and flown to the US, where he died on 19 June.
North Korea’s 24 million people have also suffered under Kim, whose human rights abuses include the torture, humiliation and sexual assault of criminal suspects and the use of a network of gulags for the politically “impure”.
Many of the defectors who have made it to the South during Kim’s time in power said they had been motivated by worsening poverty and malnutrition. The regime’s response – according to high-profile defectors, including Thae Yong-ho, a senior diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London – was to resort to executions and killings as a form of “terrorism” to crush dissent.
The Seoul-based human rights organisation the Transitional Justice Working Group said it had identified hundreds of sites where witnesses say North Korea carried out public executions and extrajudicial state killings as part of an arbitrary and aggressive use of the death penalty designed to intimidate its citizens.
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Story first published on The Guardian