한국어 | January 16, 2017
January 16, 2017
Five years on, how has Kim Jong Un changed North Korea?
Five years on, how has Kim Jong Un changed North Korea?
A ruler can do a lot in half a decade, Kim has changed little - and made some things worse
December 28th, 2016

This is part of NK News’ series on the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule.

It has now been five years since Kim Jong Il died and his son Jong Un inherited the power in North Korea. In this article, I will try to outline some general tendencies of the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule over the country.


The shameless personality cult is perhaps the most well-known trait of the DPRK. The late Kim Jong Il, being the most intellectual member of the ruling dynasty, approached the cult in a rather creative way. He edited the Constitution, declaring it “Kimilsungist,” declared his father the Eternal President of the country, and created a new calendar, with Kim Il Sung’s birthday replacing that of Jesus Christ as its starting point.

Kim Jong Un’s approach, unlike his father’s, is quantitative, not qualitative. For example, instead of creating new types of statues he erects old, typical statues everywhere. Instead of ordering new portraits of the Leader, he standardizes them, so almost all portraits feature the same “Image of the Sun” – the official name of the portrait of the smiling Leader.

From the point of view of a North Korean citizen, a quantitative cult is even worse than a qualitative one. A new statue has to be molded and installed, and locals have to regularly bring flowers and bow.

The same goes with portraits, and one should remember that although both portraits and statues are just copies, they are treated as sacred objects. I once asked a former military woman what would happen if a soldier carrying the Leader’s portrait accidentally dropped it. She said: “it is really hard to imagine such a thing – this is the Leader’s portrait so they would carry it with great care. However, if that is to happen, the offender will probably be executed”.


Another policy on which Kim Jong Un is very different from his father and grandfather is his treatment of the DPRK elite. North Korean top officials are not safe under his rule, as he reduces people in rank, fires them, and sometimes orders their executions. According to some accounts, machine guns are used on these occasions.

Kim the younger has been harsher on the country’s elites than his father | Photo: KCNA

Kim Jong Un is a cruel man. He knew many of these people – including his own uncle – and it is harder to send to death a person whom you know than a complete stranger. 

It shows that in the case of riots in North Korea, Kim Jong Un would not hesitate to use deadly force against rebels.

Kim is yet to accomplish anything significant enough to label him a “reformer”


NK News readers probably know Kim Jong Un’s economic reforms well at this point. 

The first is agricultural: farmers now yield not all, but only a part of their harvest, to the state and working teams are now comprised of two families, not of all village dwellers. The second reform stipulates that, in some enterprises, directors have the right to sell part of the production and to set salaries on their own.

Kim Jong Un, as we know, travels a lot and guides the local institutions. Amongst other places, he visits collective farms and factories. But he never mentioned any of these two reforms on any of his travels.

This is not a forbidden topic. These reforms were mentioned in Rodong Sinmun multiple times and the “socialist system of responsible enterprises” was even mentioned in Kim Jong Un’s speech at the Seventh Congress.

An embargo by the PRC could mean the end of all things for North Korea

All this casts doubt on the idea that it was Kim who pushed for reform. Could it be that one of his subordinates prepared them and Kim signed them without giving them much thought, forgetting about them the next day?

Five years have passed since Kim Jong Il died but there are no new reforms. A ruler can do a lot in five years: just remember what happened in the USSR after Stalin died, or how China changed after the death of Chairman Mao. Kim is yet to accomplish anything significant enough to label him a “reformer.”

north korea farm photo

North Korean agriculture has seen reform under Kim – though whether this was his idea is unclear | Photo by Clay Gilliland


United States, Russia, South Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia – pick any one of these nations and ask how its relations with the DPRK have changed during the last five years. The answer would be exactly the same: they became worse.

While most of these countries are not exactly important to Pyongyang, there is one exception: China. This is the only country which has some influence on the DPRK and a massive part of North Korean official and unofficial trade is done with China. An embargo by the PRC could mean the end of all things for North Korea.

China is also the only neighbor ready to seriously invest and the only one where political protest is de-facto outlawed: hence, the PRC leadership, not responsible to Chinese voters, is more flexible in its politics.

Another group of victims is comprised of people who invest money in the DPRK

You would expect the DPRK to be friends with China. A profitable relationship and a powerful ally: surely it is good for the country. Well, you may think that befriending China is OK, and I may think it’s OK, but it is not OK with Kim Jong Un.

Actually, Sino-North Korean relations are quite cold. Kim Jong Un executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who managed PRC-DPRK cooperation, and openly condemned Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reforms and openness at the Seventh Congress.

China’s attempts to befriend the DPRK were systematically stamped upon by Pyongyang and of course, the situation was further amplified by North Korean missile and atomic tests, combined with rhetoric about the DPRK being a strong nation which does not give a damn about the Security Council.

The Chinese state is not the only force to suffer from this attitude.

north korea china photo

Relations with China have declined | Photo by Roman Harak


Another group of victims is comprised of people who invest money in the DPRK. This is a small group and can roughly be divided into two types: philanthropists and businessmen.

Philanthropists, i.e. people who are ready either to donate money to Pyongyang or to work at a loss are generally treated well. Of course, North Korea will sometimes organize a scandal to remind the philanthropist that they are honored with a special privilege to give money to North Korea, but all in all the conditions would probably be satisfactory.

The last year saw fewer purges that all the previous so it may be that Kim’s bloodthirst is satisfied

As for businessmen – people who dare to want to earn money while working in the land of Juche – North Korea has a rule it has been following for decades: businessmen are to be conned. A standard scheme is applied: they wait for a person or a corporation to invest enough money and when the time comes to finally earn some profit the investor is simply kicked out.

Businessmen who receive an offer from Pyongyang or start to think of opening a business themselves sometimes approach country specialists and ask for an advice. 

I am going to give a free and universal advice to such people: don’t do it, you will be conned. 

There has been a multitude of people who thought that they were special, that their origins, connections or the way they did business would protect them. The result is always the same, no matter which Kim is in charge.


The only thing which seemingly might change is Kim Jong Un’s policy towards the elite. The last year saw fewer purges that all the previous, so it may be that his bloodthirst is satisfied. Nevertheless, the purges already conducted would be enough to scare a generation of North Korean officials.

Any prognosis which can be made can only be a short-term one, of course. In the next one to two years, the DPRK economy will likely continue to grow thanks to the private sector and the state continuing its less interventionist policy. However, the country will likely still see no investors and international relations will continue to worsen. The political system will remain as oppressive as it has always been.

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