George W Bush once famously said, or mis-said: “They misunderestimated me”. Bushisms are easy to mock, but I agree with the novelist Philip Hensher that this time Dubya actually gave us a useful new word: meaning to mistakenly underestimate.
In that sense, perhaps no one in modern times has been so badly misunderestimated as Kim Jong Un. We all – me included – read him dead wrong, as recent events have amply proved.
If there is any justice, Time magazine should name Kim as their Person of the Year. Who else dominated 2018 with such flair and panache? I hereby nominate the Artist Formerly Known as Hermit. After seven summits in five months, that tired cliché is well and truly buried now.
Events have come thick and fast in Korea this year. Interpreting them, much less predicting the future, remains a challenge. But now the dust is starting to settle a bit, the bigger picture is getting clearer – or so I shall claim, in this and subsequent articles.
And the first, main lesson is simply that the wider world had very badly misunderestimated North Korea’s young leader.
AN UNKNOWN UNKNOWN
In a way that wasn’t surprising. We knew so little about him, though that in itself was a major intelligence failure. Good grief, what on earth do the CIA, MI6 et al do with our money? How could they not even have grasped something so basic as that Kim Jong Il had not two sons, as we thought, but three? Especially when they all spent several years at school in Switzerland.
So it took a Japanese sushi chef, of all people, to pop up from nowhere in 2003 with a tall tale that turned out to be true. A decade as court chef in Pyongyang gave Kenji Fujimoto tons of spicy gossip, but also key intelligence which our spooks had somehow missed. Kim had three boys, not two. And the youngest – the one we’d never even heard of – was daddy’s favorite.
Number three son, at first rendered as Kim Jong Woon or Eun, was then aged 20. For several years more he remained a shadowy figure; there wasn’t even a confirmed photograph.
In 2009 rumors grew that the by then visibly ailing Kim Jong Il had designated Jong Un as his successor. That was confirmed in September 2010, when the latter finally appeared in public and was named in North Korean media for the first time. It proved a very brief apprenticeship. 15 months later daddy was dead, and junior was in the hot seat on his own aged just 28.
Kim Jong Il had been groomed as his father Kim Il Sung’s successor for over 20 years: ample time to learn the ropes. Yet the second Kim afforded no such leisure to his own chosen son. Under 30, untried, an unknown quantity, small wonder few reckoned he would last.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
My good friend Rüdiger Frank, one of the most astute observers of the DPRK, was far from untypical. In 2008 he wrote: “[C]ollective leadership is the most likely, the most logical option for North Korea’s political future, simply because dynastic succession will not work.”
In a co-written academic article published in 2012, Frank was still maintaining that “the power transfer from Kim Il-sung to his son [Kim Jong Il] was unique and cannot easily be duplicated,” and anticipating “the installation of some form of collective leadership.”
Plausible as it seemed, this forecast turned out to be wrong. Or was it? A different twist on a similar theme is so-called OGD theory, which claims that Kim Jong Un is just a front man for the real power behind the scenes: the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) of the ruling Workers’ Party (WPK).
Energetically propagated by the senior defector Jang Jin-sung on his interesting website (seemingly now defunct) New Focus International, this was hard to square with the fact that Kim Jong Un looked very much in charge. In a famous photo Hwang Pyong So, usually cited as the OGD’s eminence grise, seems to be kneeling before his young leader. Hwang’s star has fallen since – so whoever is pulling the strings, it sure ain’t him.
I reckon Kim Jong Un is in charge. Obviously he has advisers, but his demeanor is that of the boss. That is also the impression of his now several foreign interlocutors. As Benjamin Young nicely put it in these pages: “Sometimes, even in the DPRK, what you see is what you get.”
Being in charge is less a state than a process. Shorn of paternal protection, Kim Jong Un had first to seize and cement power in his own right. In Pyongyang’s unforgiving politics, which he has notably not made more merciful, that must have been quite a fight. Looking back on Kim’s seven years at the helm so far, they fall into three distinct if overlapping periods.
2012-16: Securing the home front
By way of comparison, it took Kim’s father Kim Jong Il three years (1994-97) after the death of his own father Kim Il Sung to fully establish his authority. This was a strange limbo period, with normal political routines put on hold. The Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) failed to meet, and its election was held three years late. The country was also racked by famine.
Kim Jong Un by contrast was keen on due process, of a kind, from the off. But he needed four years to get everything shipshape. His securing of the home front had three main strands.
Two were of these were opposite sides of one coin. He clipped the top brass’s wings, to curb the political clout of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) which had grown overweening under his father’s military-first policy (Songun). And he restored the formal rule of the Party, whose top organs – the Central Committee (CC) and its Political Bureau – Kim Jong Il had weirdly allowed to wither: people died and weren’t replaced.
During Kim Jong Un’s first few years, the top military posts – Minister of People’s Armed Forces (MPAF) and Chief of the General Staff (CGS) – rotated at dizzying speed. Some incumbents lasted only a few months.
Lately things seemed to have stabilized, but maybe a luta continua. Consider the fate of Pak Yong Sik, who after nearly three years in post was Kim’s longest serving MPAF to date. As such, he met Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom on April 27.
Yet he hasn’t been seen since May 2, and we learnt in June that North Korea now has a different defense minister, No Kwang Chol. This was part of a wider military reshuffle, which could have several interpretations. But it’s hard to deny that the KPA now knows who’s boss – and it ain’t them, not any more.
If the top brass are kept on their toes and glancing anxiously over their shoulders, by contrast the Party’s upper echelons look pretty stable these days. Kim Jong Un restored the WPK’s primacy (under him, of course) by filling vacancies and a series of meetings, climaxing in the Seventh Congress in May 2016: the first such to be held for an amazing 36 years.
Besides reining in the KPA and restoring the Party, Kim’s third task was to liquidate potential rivals. In late 2013 he publicly purged his uncle-in-law and mentor Jang Song Thaek.
In early 2017 his half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed with a nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport. Proof may be elusive, but only one person really needed Jong Nam dead – just in case China, say, might be tempted to replace the troublesome Jong Un with a more biddable princeling.
2016-17: Impregnability beyond doubt
With the home front largely in hand, Kim Jong Un’s priorities shifted to securing his position externally. 2016 began with a bang – the first of many over the next two years – which made the world sit up and take note.
January 6’s nuclear test was North Korea’s fourth in a decade, but the next two came within two years. The pace of missile testing accelerated even faster, with flurries of ever bigger and better ICBMs culminating in November 2017’s Hwasong-15. (This was less than a year ago; somehow it feels more distant than that already, doesn’t it?)
The facts are familiar, but interpreting them is key. Kim Jong Un is no Bond baddie bent on global domination, much as last year’s posturing and rhetoric fed into such a tabloid narrative.
Rather, all that WMD testing was primarily defensive. Kim wanted to make absolutely certain that no U.S. President, not even this one, could ever treat North Korea like Iraq or Libya.
One might suppose that having 14,000 heavy artillery pieces near the DMZ, trained on Seoul, already rendered the DPRK invasion-proof. Or maybe not. We know the ‘bloody nose’ option of a (supposedly) limited strike was being mulled in the White House, however irresponsibly.
Kim Jong Un’s recklessness in goading Washington could have led to the very attack he wished to prevent. Had his testing continued into 2018, that might have become a rising risk.
But he didn’t. We are now in phase three of Kim’s plan. On November 29, immediately after the Hwasong-15’s successful flight, he declared this “a significant day when the historic cause of completing the state nuclear force …was realized, thereby “putting the strategic position of the DPRK on a higher stage.”
We didn’t twig at the time, but completed meant finished. In what looked like a U-turn, but wasn’t really, the young marshal was about to stop testing and start talking – from a position of great strength.
This third, ongoing new phase is the subject of our next article. Stay tuned!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
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