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This is part of NK News’ series of opinion and analysis of the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule.
When Kim Jong Un first came to power, he seemed like something of a long shot. Could this princeling, still only in his twenties, really maintain order and secure the rule of his family amid the endless cloak and dagger ways of North Korean politics? Many assumed he’d quickly be assassinated, some that he’d simply be a puppet for more powerful interests.
But five years on and the Kim Dynasty of North Korea seems stronger than ever. The ruling party and the army are marching in step with the leadership, and state media is full of reports of his military supervision and party activities. Within no time, he’s slipped with ease into the roles that his father and grandfather inhabited for so long.
So how has he managed this? And what leadership challenges await him in the next few years? In the final part of a six-part series examining how Kim Jong Un has spent his first half-decade in charge, NK News reached out to experts from across the world with three key questions on the new balance of power in Pyongyang and where loyalties really lie.
The following North Korea specialists responded on time for our deadline:
1. How would you characterize the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule?
Alison Evans: There are two major trends since Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011: first, a consolidation of power and, second, an acceleration of weapons development. Since 2013 in particular, though Kim Jong Un announced his core policy of byeongjin roseon, or “path of parallel progress” towards both economic and military might, the execution of Jang Song Thaek, reduction in seats in the National Defence Commission, and civilians like Hwang Pyeong Seo and Pak Pong Ju taking top posts in military bodies, indicate a concentration of power around Kim Jong Un and his closest advisors, and that the party has become more influential in the leadership relative to the military.
Also, there have been more missile launches, particularly of medium and long-range missiles, in the past five years than in all 17 years under Kim Jong Il. Last year, after a landmine in the DMZ injured two South Korean soldiers, the two Koreas came as close to conflict as ever since the November 2010 artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Since then North Korea has tested two nuclear explosive devices and shown that it likely has a viable re-entry vehicle for space-launch vehicles or intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Mike Madden: The first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule has been marked by a pair of transitions. The first was a system he inherited that had been set up to cope with Kim Jong Il’s declining health and adjusted work schedule and transition to KJU’s leadership.
The second was Kim Jong Un changing the political system and culture to adjust to his personality and method of leadership which was consummated at the 7th Party Congress and the 4th Session of the 13th SPA.
Kenneth Gause: This has been a period of power consolidation for Kim Jong Un. His every action has been with an eye toward securing his position as Supreme Leader. From his purge of Jang Song Thaek, to his charm offensive, to his rush to establish a viable nuclear program are tied to considerations of power and legitimacy.
Despite initial speculation, Kim Jong Un has proven himself capable of navigating the threats inside the regime. Externally, he has a mixed record. His greatest failure has been his inability to engage the outside world on North Korea’s terms: as a recognized nuclear power.
John Grisafi: I would characterize the past five years as a time in which Kim and his close associates have worked to build Kim’s reputation and network and consolidate power around him. In the first two or three years the concern was more focused on building basic legitimacy and keeping the regime alive under his leadership. Two years in, he conducted a major purge to eliminate potential rivals – particularly his uncle.
In the last two years or so, we have seen attempts to slightly restructure the regime around the current leader, including a shift away from Songun in favor of the Byungjin line, and most recently some major political conferences and a reordering of some party and state entities.
Most significant among these was the establishment of the State Affairs Commission to supplant the National Defense Commission earlier this year. Alongside all of this have been efforts under Kim’s leadership to demonstrate national strength through the continued development of a nuclear deterrent, ballistic missiles, and other strategically valuable weapons.
2. What is the biggest challenge facing Kim Jong Un’s future capability to lead for another five years – and why?
Alison Evans: I think the greatest challenge facing North Korea’s leadership in the next five years will be managing escalation, or rather de-escalation, after incidents like missile launches or cyber attacks. This is because of changes in South Korean policy and likely behavior: in 2012 a Defence White Paper stated that South Korea’s armed forces “will decisively strike not only the origin of enemy provocation, but also the command and support forces behind the provocation.”
This policy change allows South Korea the scope to pre-emptively strike North Korean targets, rather than only meeting an attack with a proportionate response – something we saw in the disproportionately more artillery shells that South Korea fired in September 2015. Uncertainty around the U.S. defense pact, exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election, accelerates South Korea’s development of its own capabilities.
Internally, I think the greatest challenge facing North Korea’s leadership will be increasing information, especially cultural goods, from foreign countries. If this is coupled with substantial trade restrictions or economic decline, it is likely to cause difficulty for domestic populations and foment dissatisfaction that may require enhanced security services activities to control.
Michael Madden: Kim Jong Un deals with one constant challenge, one which affected his father at the end, but to a lesser degree: he has to contend and balance his policy goals with the natural pace of change in the habits and behaviors of North Korea’s population with the priorities and interests of formal (state/army/party/security) and informal (forex traders, masters of money) power constituencies. Other than that, there is nothing which threatens his rule of the DPRK or dominance of its political culture, at least five years from now, if not ten.
Kenneth Gause: His biggest challenge will be keeping the donju on the side of the regime. As the internal security apparatus continues to pressure the monied elite, there is the potential for a fundamental rip to occur within the leadership.
If this happens, Kim Jong Un’s ability to effectively rule will be compromised. This will not only disrupt an increasingly important revenue stream for the regime, it will also undermine Kim’s ability to tap into the growing market economy.
The result will be an increasingly restive leadership and the potential for the growth of alternate power centers tied to corrupt and coopted revenue streams.
John Grisafi: I can’t say with any certainty what the biggest challenge for Kim will be, as I cannot possibly foresee everything that will happen. I do believe we will see the continuation of some established trends, however.
One is that Kim will likely continue to be challenged by the international community – including national governments, international organizations, and NGOs – on his human rights record, and Pyongyang will likely continue to fight that in the press and through diplomacy.
Maintaining foreign relationships is also going to be a continuing challenge for Pyongyang and they will need to do this to continue surviving amid attempts to sanction the North. So far, they’ve managed to do it.
This may be complicated even further by recent elections in the United States and the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in South Korea, both resulting in less predictable political climates in two key nations for the North. Unfortunately, little is known of Kim’s own diplomatic prowess and what he may do personally in this realm.
3. Has anything surprised you about the way Kim Jong Un has led his country thus far?
Alison Evans: One thing I think is unusual about North Korea under Kim Jong Un is the poor diplomatic relations with China, its only ally. While the leadership naturally would not want outside influence and value much more the two countries’ trade relations, over the past five years China’s diplomatic relationship with South Korea has improved substantially relative to North Korea.
Examples at the highest level of government include Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting South Korea in July 2014, without having visited North Korea; similarly in September 2015 South Korea President Park Geun-hye attended China’s military parade on the 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War in the Asia-Pacific (the North Korean representative was Choe Ryong-hae).
Mike Madden: Kim Jong Un has been a bit more forward and direct than his father, so I suppose whether it’s the Jang Song Thaek purge or his upbraiding construction workers during on-site visits, I’ve been surprised or a little taken aback that Kim Jong Un is less subtle than his dad.
Kenneth Gause: Every move Kim Jong Un has made up to this point has followed the logic of power consolidation. He needed to do 3 things to fully consolidate his power: practice politics (purges and such), show progress on critical defense systems (nuclear and missile), and show progress on the economy (diplomatic charm campaign). He has succeeded in 2 out of 3.
In May 2015, after the Russia initiative fell through, Kim made one last tack to engage the ROK (the DMZ event). When that failed, he shifted gears to the brinksmanship strategy characterized by nuclear and missile tests. That is where we are today. Not too complicated.
This came as a shock initially because Jang was thought to be such a key figure in assisting Kim in governance, but in hindsight that very fact would seem be the best explanation for his removal. He was almost certainly deemed to hold too much potential influence and thus eliminated as soon as was feasible.
Again, this was surprising only in that it was unanticipated, not that it was confusing. In hindsight it fits the pattern of Kim and his close associates consolidated the leadership structure around him, as indicated by other developments I noted in my response to the first question.
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll, Oliver Hotham, Hamish Macdonald, JH Ahn, Dagyum Ji