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The Peninsula

Six Months of Keeping Up with Kim Jong-Un

Published June 15, 2012
Author: Sarah Yun
Category: North Korea

By Sarah K. Yun

June 17, 2012 marks the six month anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s leadership in North Korea.  Some analysts predicted that the new Kim regime was unlikely to survive the first six months, but it has been surprisingly smooth sailing despite several major challenges.  The past half year can be seen as part of the process of establishing internal stability under Kim Jong-un juxtaposed by sporadic events of external psychological warfare.  However, the real test for the regime may lie in the months ahead. With many of the preplanned events for the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth passed, there will be fewer opportunities for Kim Jong-un to utilize previously choreographed occasions to bolster his legitimacy. Over the next half year, we should begin to see how the real power structure will take shape and what type of leader Kim Jong-un will emerge as.

Stability = Titles + Public Relations + Legacy

For a much needed assertion of legitimacy, the new regime in North Korea has engaged in a process of instilling legitimacy with titles, traditions, and claims of ties to the past. It has turned to a formula of bestowing titles to the living and the dead, public relations campaigns, and an adherence to legacy. On December 31, 2011, Kim Jong-un became the supreme commander of armed forces.  On April 11, 2012, he was appointed the first secretary of the Korea Workers’ Party, standing member of the Politburo, and chairman of the Central Military Commission.  On April 14, he became the first chairman of the National Defense Commission, which officially completed his power transition. At the same time, his legitimacy was tied to the past with the elevation of Kim Jong-il to Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission.

While the changes in government were at work, Kim Jong-un made a concerted effort to frequently appear before the public.  His public appearances have helped to create a perception of being in charge and provide the veneer of a leader taking the reins of power. Had he not done so, it would have left the new regime open to speculations of dissent or a coup.  Beginning with his first official visit to a tank brigade on December 30, 2011, he has made approximately 70 public visits (excluding his visits to Kim Jong-il’s bier).  According to sources from NKnews, about 45% of Kim’s public sightings have been related to the military; 41% cultural, education, other symbolic political appearances; and 14% the economy.  The frequency of his public visits indicates Kim Jong-un undertook a strategy to enhance his relevance to the North Korean leaders and people, given his quick ascension to leadership.  The emphasis on military visits is also key as they point to Kim Jong-un’s adherence to the military-first policy, where the true base for his power likely lies.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un made his first public speech in central Pyongyang for the lavish celebration of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. The speech quieted hopes of Kim Jong-un being a reformed leader, as he focused on carrying the legacy of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, military superiority and songun policy, and ability to stand up to international intimidation.  In his second public speech at the 6th Children’s Day Festival, he urged young people to take part in the military-first revolution.

Since April 2012, Kim Jong-un has published three public treatises praising the accomplishments of his grandfather and father.  In the treatise dated April 20 titled “The Great Comrade Kim Il-sung is the Eternal Leader of Our Party and People,” Kim Jong-un praised his grandfather for being “the most prominent leader and peerlessly great man in the 20th century.”

While the North Korean leadership came to the conclusion that a combination of the three factors (titles, public relations, and legacy) would yield internal stability, it also engaged in another tactic of regimes seeking to secure their own legitimacy – rally the population around an external threat.  Therefore, in concert with internal moves to buy time for regime consolidation, North Korea engaged in external psychological warfare with the South Korean leadership to divert attention from North Korea to the outside world.  Much of this can be seen in the recent rhetoric focused on South Korea, but also in the unusually harsh depictions of President Lee Myung-bak.

Insecurities and Challenges

On the other hand, signs of insecurity can be seen within Kim leadership from the lightening speed in which the leadership transition is taking place.  After all, Kim Jong-il had 20 years to consolidate power compared to Kim Jong-un who barely had two years to establish himself.  It has been reported that Kim Jong-un mentioned Kim Il-sung 19 times and Kim Jong-il 15 times in his first speech. This implies that the three Kims are one in mind, ideology and leadership, and also shows a window into North Korea’s dire need to stabilize the new regime under the young leader. Importantly, it indicates how closely the regime’s legitimacy is tied to the Kim family.

Additionally, North Korea’s fixation with information technology and Kim Jong-un’s speech on land management reveal an insecurity of wanting a quick-fix to leapfrog over past steps in its approach to development.  Kim’s emphasis on the need for continued face lift on the buildings and infrastructure of Pyongyang to “spruce up the land as befitting that of a thriving nation” is a limited approach to development.

At the same time, the regime is tamping down the rhetoric in terms of its promises to the population. North Korea’s goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation by 2012 is dismal. The regime has implied its achievement of a strong and prosperous nation on ideology and military, but not on the economic front. According to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, the Congress of the Korea Workers Party reportedly revised its regulations to replace “juche” with “principles of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il” and “strong and prosperous nation” with “powerful nation.”

The failed rocket launch amidst the presence of foreign media in North Korea also posed a significant hurdle for Kim Jong-un’s leadership.  Arguably, the rocket launch was a continuation of Kim Jong-il’s policy.  Therefore, Kim Jong-un’s next step to recover from the embarrassment will be an important factor in whether he garners continued support from the military or creates fissures for opposition to grow.

Future Challenges

Given that Kim Jong-un focused almost solely on the consolidation of leadership in the first half year of his ascension to power, the next six months will be a test of his ability to make policy decisions that impact internal dynamics or diplomatic relationships.  Urgent issues that need to be addressed include the next steps on the nuclear program and an economic stagnation compounded by one of the worst droughts in 50 years.

While North Korea adopts a wait-and-see approach towards the U.S. and South Korea, who both have presidential elections at the end of 2012, Kim has also adopted a more visible diplomatic approach with Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  The upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum in July might be an interesting venue to watch Kim Jong-un’s engagement strategy.  Furthermore, North Korea’s relationship with China after the UNSC Presidential Statement condemning the rocket launch and detainment of Chinese fishermen will be noteworthy to observe.

The true test for Kim Jong-un may be whether is able to carve out a style of leadership that respects the legacy of his family but is able to set a new path for North Korea. Two issues could help provide insight on this. First is whether Kim Jong-un would be compelled to respond to the failure of the missile launch or stick to his statement that the regime has no plans for a third nuclear test. If the regime is able to merely move on without any demonstration, it could represent a significant change in the leadership. Additionally, if discussions on economic development begin, they could represent the first steps towards gradual economic reform.

Over the next six months and coming years, Kim Jong-un and North Korea will surely face further leadership decisions and challenges.  What remains unanswered is what type of leader he will be and how the power structure in Pyongyang will unfold. How this is answered in an unscripted environment will give us a concrete framework to better understand the future leadership. The first six months under Kim Jong-un have been relatively smooth, but have also only been enough to provide a window into Kim Jong-un’s leadership style.  The next phase will determine if he can establish legitimacy as a leader outside the shadow of his father and grandfather.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from zennie62’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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