This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
When the leather-jacket-clad Kim Jong Un opened the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021, he sat firmly entrenched as the unquestioned authority in North Korea, just as his father and grandfather had before him.
One decade into his rule, Kim’s power is absolute. But when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011, few knew what to expect from the Swiss-educated NBA fan who had been designated as the “Great Successor” in the last days of his father’s rule.
Some thought that Kim Jong Un’s western education might lead him to reform the decaying isolationist country that he was to inherit.
Others thought that at 27, Kim Jong Un was ill-fitted to lead a dynasty and would be reduced to a mere puppet backed by more powerful and experienced officials.
Still others viewed the elder Kim’s death as a precursor to North Korea’s collapse.
“North Korea as we know it is over,” wrote former White House Asian Affairs Adviser Victor Cha only days after Kim Jong Il’s death in an Op-Ed for the New York Times.
“Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together,” said Cha, who even suggested that North Korea could be reduced to a de-facto province of the People’s Republic of China in the aftermath.
A decade later, Kim Jong Un appears to have proven his detractors wrong.
In his 10-years at the helm, the country has seen both new highs and familiar lows. He made historic diplomatic overtures both with South Korea and the U.S., and his nuclear and missile programs made major advances in capability.
Economy in tatters
But the North Korean economy lies in shambles, worse off than when he took over, due to the double squeeze of international nuclear sanctions and a closed border with China to stop the spread of coronavirus. Still, few talk about regime collapse like they did 10 years ago.
“When he took over, he had to really show the rest of the leadership, especially the old guards that he was able to really enforce his will on the leadership,” Ken Gause, research program director at the Virginia-based CNA think tank, told RFA’s Korean Service.
Very early on in his rule, Kim began a bloody purge of hundreds of government officials, including his own uncle Jang Song Theak, who many had thought was the de-facto leader of the country in the final days of Kim Jong Il’s rule.
Jang was executed for “attempting to overthrow the state,” but observers at the time believed it was his desire for economic reform, as well as his disagreements with Kim Jong Un on foreign policy that did him in.
The deadly moves to consolidate his power spilled outside of North Korea in 2017, when Kim Jong Un’s brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at an airport in Malaysia by two women claiming they were tricked into smearing nerve agent onto the disgraced older brother’s face, believing they were participating in a prank for a television show.
Kim Jong Nam had at one time appeared to have been next in line after his father, but some believe he fell out of favor after an embarrassing run-in with Japanese immigration officials as he attempted to take a family trip to Tokyo Disneyland.
“If [Kim Jong Un] had not engaged in the very bloody aspects of politics inside North Korea, there is a chance that he could have been maybe not toppled but turned into a figurehead,” Gause said.
“I’m sure that Kim Jong Il educated his son … [on] what it means and what the Kim’s family rule is. Rule number one, ‘You have to do whatever is necessary. Because if you give this system a chance, the system does not like the perpetuation of generational turnover from one Kim to the next,’” he said.
The elite politics of the communist world’s only hereditary dynasty are playing out as many in the impoverished country struggle to find their next meal. Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, food is in short supply, imports aren’t keeping pace with demand, and starvation deaths have been reported.
In 2012, three months into his rule, Kim promised the people during a high-profile event that they would never feel hungry again like they had during the Arduous March, the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions, or as much as 10% of the population by some estimates.
Tighten your belts
In a New Year’s Address in 2013, he promised economic stability and an improvement in living standards.
Now authorities are telling the people that they should prepare for another Arduous March, and Kim has publicly called on the people to tighten their belts again.
“Right now, North Korea is trying to take and become self-sufficient, but the challenge with that is that North Korea doesn’t have the resources to be self-sufficient,” Troy Stangarone, senior director and fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, told RFA.
“It lacks the technology, energy and agricultural basis to do so. This is why we see large portions of the population’s food are insecure and why you see outside of Pyongyang cities largely underdeveloped,” he said.
Despite the economic crisis, Kim has declared victory, earlier this month proclaiming at a meeting of the political bureau that “the national economy is managed and stable.”
Mun Song Hui, editor-in-chief of the Japan-based Shukan Kinyobi weekly magazine, told RFA that Kim’s assessment of the economic situation was difficult to accept.
“While border closures are still ongoing and international sanctions have not been eased, it is hard to believe that there are achievements. It is not convincing to say that the achievements of self-reliance and self-sufficiency are so simple,” Mun said.
“Conversely, I think the seriousness of the problem lies in the fact that the two sectors of agriculture and construction are still at the center of economic policy,” Mun said.
He noted that Kim has, since the earliest days of his rule, attempted to implement policies to bolster both sectors, but remains unable to resolve problems in either.
Though Kim Jong Un has had his ups and downs running the country of 25 million, much of the discourse and speculation surrounding the young leader has been about his weight, his health and his fashion choices.
Last year, the South Korean National Intelligence Service described Kim as “extremely obese.”
At a stature of 170 cm (5 feet 8 inches), he was estimated to weigh about 90 kg (about 200 lbs.) shortly after he took office in 2012. He has gained around 6 or 7 kg each year since then, to reach 140 kg (more than 300 pounds) in 2020.
Kim also disappeared from the public eye in mid-2020, leading observers to speculate that his health was deteriorating. As rumors of his death circulated, interest in the Kim Dynasty’s line of succession after Kim Jong Un began to brew among North Korea watchers.
Some suggested that he would be replaced by his sister Kim Yo Jong, known for her undiplomatic rants published in state media about the South Korean and U.S. governments. But Kim Jong Un resurfaced, and Kim Yo Jong was demoted after the 8th Party Congress in January 2021.
After another lengthy absence in mid 2021, Kim reappeared having lost a considerable amount of weight. Looking visibly thinner, but still heavier than the vast majority of North Koreans, state media reported that even the “Highest Dignity” as he is colloquially referred to, had been “suffering” alongside his people during the economic crisis and food shortages.
In a modern update of the cult worship cultivated around his predecessors, Kim and his wife’s fashion trends are copied in the country of 25 million people.
When his wife, singer Ri Sol Ju, appeared in a dress made by French luxury brand Chanel in 2013, a whole knockoff industry emerged, allowing North Korean women to dress like Ri but at more affordable prices.
Young men this year decided that leather was in, after Kim and other high-ranking officials began sporting black leather trench coats at high-profile events.
Quite possibly Kim Jong Un’s greatest success has been simultaneously his greatest failure.
No deals with US
The two meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018 and Vietnam in 2019, as well as Trump’s brief visit 2019 to North Korea in Panmunjom, which straddles the inter-Korean border, were the first direct interactions between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president.
While the two visits were seen as a public relations win for Pyongyang, they failed to produce an agreement.
“If the North Korea-U.S. summit had gone well, the economic sanctions problems might have been resolved and the direction might have changed toward reform and opening,” Park Won Gon, of Ewha Womans University in Seoul told RFA. “But that didn’t happen.”
North Korea returned to its tried-and-true strategy of brinkmanship in 2021 with the start of a new U.S. administration, unveiling new weapons capabilities in a series of test launches this year.
Of North Korea’s six nuclear weapons tests so far, four took place during Kim Jong Un’s reign.
The first, in 2013, likely yielded a 14 kiloton explosion. Pyongyang claimed the second, in January 2016, was a hydrogen bomb, and in September 2016, Pyongyang announced that it successfully tested a nuclear warhead that could be mounted onto a rocket.
North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, in 2017, was also claimed to be a hydrogen bomb, with South Korea’s Korea Meteorological Association estimating that the explosion was between 50 and 60 kilotons.
North Korea also conducted 43 missile tests since 2012, four of which flew over Japanese territory. Pyongyang’s first ICBM test occurred in 2017, potentially giving North Korea the ability to hit cities as far away as the northeastern U.S.
Other examples of a return to brinkmanship included the destruction of a South Korea-built inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong in 2020 and a complete shutdown of hotlines between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Strongman with a weak economy
North Korea blamed the South Korean government for failing to prevent activists in the South, many of whom had escaped in North Korea, from launching anti-regime leaflets on hot air balloons across the border.
The hotlines remained down until October 2021.
Analysts believe that public support for Kim, never easy to gauge in a closed dictatorship, is waning as a result of the current economic crisis.
Though many had high expectations for the new leader when he took office and appeared to show that he was in favor of economic reforms, the closure of the border with China, the food shortages, and a strengthening of the cult of personality around Kim have dismayed a populace that struggles to make ends meet.
Kim’s attempts at “deifying himself” are not working, according to Kim Min Jung, the deputy director of the South Korea-based SaveNK NGO.
“Despite the suppression of human rights, the thinking of North Koreans is changing. They have access to external information through markets and are starting to open their eyes to the outside world,” she said.
“Although Kim Jong Un has laid the foundation for power through a rule of fear, he has limitations,” she said.
With a decade under his firmly tightened belt, Kim Jong Un has also a tightened grip on the country’s power structure despite all North Korea’s problems, Gause said.
“He has consolidated his power. Now there is really no opposition to him inside the regime. He seems to be in a fairly stable position, but he has completely failed on trying to turn the economy around, which I think is the kind of the centerpiece of his vision.”