NEW YORK — When Kim Jong Un ascended to the leadership of North Korea in 2011 after his father died, he was the world’s youngest head of state, the object of condescension and even ridicule. He had a negligible resume and a goofy haircut. Nobody thought he would last more than a few years, and if he did, it would be only as a figurehead.
Kim not only has defied expectations, he also has outdone his father in almost every measure of job performance: economic stewardship, military leadership and even personal popularity.
He also has proved himself far more ruthless. While Kim Jong Il usually exiled rivals to the countryside or assigned them obscure diplomatic posts abroad, his son hasn’t hesitated to kill, disposing of his uncle and regent Jang Song Taek in 2013 with a firing squad, and ordering last year’s deadly nerve-agent attack on half-brother Kim Jong Nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia.
Most remarkable is the shape-shifting transformation from tyrant to statesman that Kim orchestrated in recent months, a makeover he brought to Singapore to meet with President Donald Trump Tuesday –– a summit that would have been unimaginable last year.
Trump’s surprising acceptance of Kim’s invitation to meet has elevated Kim on the world stage to the point where he is being courted by such world leaders as Chinese President Xi Jinping (they’ve met twice since March) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week invited him to Moscow.
“Trump should not underestimate Kim Jong Un. He shouldn’t be going into this summit thinking, ‘Kim is some young boy,’ ” said Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.
“He is the perfect dictator. Smart, pragmatic, highly realistic and brutal,” said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul, South Korea-based scholar who has lived and worked inside North Korea.
Among outsiders, there is a tendency to view North Korea’s leaders as reincarnations of each other — all named Kim, short and pudgy (“Fatty #3” is the unflattering nickname on Chinese social media). But this Kim, now about 34 (exact ages are a state secret in North Korea), has quickly distinguished himself from the pack.
More like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un is a showman by nature. Unlike his father, who seldom was seen or heard in public, Kim likes to strut out on the town with his photogenic wife, Ri Sol Ju, whose presence seems calculated to make North Korea look like a normal country. State media Saturday showed the two of them at a restaurant.
By North Korean standards, Kim also is remarkably transparent. That was evident in April 2012 when the government took the unprecedented step of admitting that one of its satellite launches had failed.
As for what he wants, one need look no further than his own words. In his first major policy directive in 2013, he told the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party that he would adopt a strategy known as byungjin, after the Korean word for parallel: simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and building the economy.
The experts scoffed, saying those goals were incompatible because sanctions triggered by the nuclear tests would kill economic growth. But at least for now, Kim appears to have pulled it off.
Four of North Korea’s six nuclear tests took place under Kim Jong Un. The most recent, in September, was up to 10 times more powerful than the U.S. bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. The intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea launched in November was deemed capable of reaching New York or Washington, D.C.
On the economic front, Kim moved in his first year as leader to lift archaic Soviet-style restrictions on market activity that had been imposed by his father. The reforms allowed North Koreans to try to support themselves by selling herbs, tofu, firewood, vegetables, or anything else that would help them survive after the government-run distribution system collapsed.
The result has been rare improvement in the North Korean economy.
South Korea’s national bank estimated that North Korea’s economy in 2016 grew 3.9 percent. That’s the most since 1999 and a growth rate that exceeds that of the infinitely more developed South.
“Kim Jong Il saw markets as the enemy of the socialist system. Kim Jong Un has realized that they can’t live without market,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a scholar and co-editor of the North Korean Economy Watch.
Market growth has taken some of the edge off the chronic hunger among North Korea’s population. It also has kept the economy humming along despite the “maximum pressure” sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
“It boggles the mind that they have been able to keep prices for rice and exchange rates stable throughout,” Katzeff Silberstein said.
Katharina Zellweger, a Swiss aid official who has worked in North Korea for more than two decades, noted several new developments on her most recent trip — more greenhouses to provide fresh produce during the long winters, more North Korean-made products such as potato chips and candies, and playgrounds in provincial capitals with trampolines for children.
“You do see that life has improved a little,” Zellweger said. “I get the sense people generally are satisfied with the steps Kim Jong Un has taken.”
While public opinion is elusive in the police state, where nobody dares whisper a critical thought, North Korea watchers believe that Kim is at least better tolerated than his father, who presided over a famine during which as many as 200,000 people died.
“He is generally, remarkably more popular than his father and probably than his grandfather,” Lankov said. “Why? The economy. … And on top of that, people like nuclear weapons. They are proud.”
Nevertheless, economic reforms have not been accompanied by political liberalization. Kim hasn’t budged on human rights. Authorities have tightened control over the 800-mile border with China and stepped up prosecution of people caught with South Korean music, movies and TV shows.
North Korea remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Its per capita income is less than 5 percent of South Korea’s. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 41 percent of North Koreans are malnourished.
The economic sanctions have stymied an estimated $1 billion worth of North Korea’s exports, estimated in 2016 at $2.9 billion. At least initially, ordinary North Koreans didn’t feel the bite. Because China no longer was buying coal or seafood, there was more available on the domestic market. And China has kept exporting food and basic consumer goods to North Korea.
Economists suspect that Kim has been using a secret stash of money to fund the ballooning trade deficit and maintain the illusion of stability.
“It hasn’t been sustainable. Economic reforms have had a positive effect on the North Korean economy, but they can’t continue down that path forever. They need sanctions relief,” said Stephan Haggard, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego who specializes in the North Korean economy.
To that end, Kim started his so-called charm offensive this year to bring about direct negotiations with the United States. A nuclear summit with Trump is an accomplishment that eluded his father, who tried and failed to get a meeting with President Bill Clinton.
Kim and a team of advisers who have followed U.S. politics for decades have been studying Trump since before the 2016 presidential election, hanging on to statements he made as a candidate, such as his now-famous offer at a rally in Atlanta in 2016 to sit down with Kim over a hamburger.
“Maybe nobody else was paying attention, but the North Koreans listened to every word,” said Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council.
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