How Kim Jong‐​Un Dominates North Korea

This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on April 7, 2020.
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Eight years ago Kim Jong‐​un became the First Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party. Five months after the death of his father, Kim Jong‐​il, the new title signaled that the 28‐​year‐​old third son of the “Dear Leader” was ascending if not yet fully ascendant.

Nevertheless, many North Korean analysts expected Kim to be at most number one in a collective leadership. Or more likely front man for someone else’s rule, perhaps his uncle, Jang Song‐​thaek, who first entered national leadership under Kim’s grandfather and stood in for Kim Jong‐​il after the latter’s stroke.

However, Kim had Jang executed less than two years later, in December 2013. Jang was not the first mentor (perhaps minder is a better term) assigned by Kim Jong-un’s father to suffer that fate. Two months after Kim took the party’s top title Ri Yong‐​ho, vice marshal, Chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff, member of the Presidium of the Politburo, and vice‐​chairman of the Central Military Commission, lost all his positions at a special Politburo meeting, which removed him “for his illness.” Actually, Ri’s ouster was the disease: he is believed to have been executed, though no formal announcement was made. Since Kim took control well over 300 officials, many high‐​level cadres, have been killed. Others have been demoted, removed for reeducation, or simply retired.

This suggests that Kim, routinely called the Supreme Leader, is in charge but nervous, if not afraid. Early executions helped establish his power, but also served the interests of competing factions and individuals. For instance, Jang undoubtedly was happy to see Ri disappear. In return, the military brass shed few tears over Jang’s fate.

However, with one man clearly in charge, the won really does stop with Kim. Everyone seems equally in danger of incurring his displeasure. Moreover, he has disappointed many. His negotiations with Donald Trump likely discomfited the military and security apparatus. The breakdown of talks certainly frustrated officials prioritizing economic growth and a nomenklatura beginning to enjoy greater material wealth. Beijing was shocked by Jang’s execution and treated Kim dismissively until the latter was set to meet Trump.

Moreover, Pyongyang’s decision‐​making process remains highly idiosyncratic. It is centralized and arbitrary, ultimately based on the whims of one man, influenced in uncertain degrees by interests and people around him. And the ill fate of past comrades likely discourages people from telling the Supreme Leader what he doesn’t want to hear. There was speculation that Kim was not fully aware of Washington’s positions before the busted Hanoi summit. Thus, much depends on Kim’s perception of reality, especially regarding the hostile rhetoric and military deployments of his adversaries.

Most important, Kim may be a reformer, but he is no liberal. His emphasis on economic growth distinguishes him from his father and grandfather, who appeared to fear the destabilizing impact of almost any change. Kim may have been convinced by the Chinese experience, that an authoritarian regime could maintain control even after joining the international marketplace. He has adopted cautious market‐​oriented changes and expressed his goals to the North Korean people.

The Supreme Leader also appears to enjoy international diplomacy and has had dramatic success: multiple summits with Xi Jinping, who spent six years ignoring Kim’s existence; several meetings with Trump, whose first year in office culminated with threats of “fire and fury”; a South Korean government anxious to cooperate with the North following a more conservative administration that had curtailed engagement; a first if brief session with Russia’s Vladimir Putin; reports that Japan’s prime minister also hopes for a tete‐​a‐​tete.

Breaking precedent, Kim has publicized his wife at home and brought her to international gatherings. South Korean diplomats cite his skillful treatment of President Moon Jae‐​in, reflecting typical Asian respect for one’s elders. Almost certainly Pyongyang used the prospect of a deal with the Trump administration to win concessions and assistance from both Beijing and Moscow. Perhaps most dramatic, Kim has made U.S. military action almost inconceivable, in the foreseeable future, at least. The president has cited his personal relationship with Kim; Washington officials continue to push for additional talks; and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has dropped off the nightly news for threatening America, exiting the American people’s collective consciousness.

However, Kim is no Mikhail Gorbachev. The latter wanted to reform the Soviet Union, but not just the economy. He also wanted a freer politics and more humane society. Nothing suggests that Kim is so inclined. To the contrary, the Supreme Leader has cracked down on traffic across the border with China as well as cultural influences from South Korea and beyond. It looks a lot like Xi’s approach.

Still, Kim today offers the best chance for détente of sorts, though not likely denuclearization. Certainly not in an all‐​or‐​nothing deal, in which he is expected to abandon his deterrent and hope Washington treats him well. This latter approach is impossible, since no sensible dictator anywhere targeted by the U.S. can be expected to trade nukes for empty promises. That reality was doubly reinforced by the fate of Muammar Khadafy, who gave up his nuclear and missile programs only to be taken out by the American and several European governments the moment he was vulnerable to an internal uprising. While his departure from the world of the living is otherwise a positive, it dramatically demonstrated that the U.S. and its allies cannot be trusted. The only guarantee of survival, to paraphrase China’s Mao Zedong, grows out of the fear of the bomb.

However, having gained a nuclear capability along with ever longer‐​range missiles, Kim could trade away some of the more fearsome aspect of his arsenal: proliferation to other regimes and non‐​state actors, unconstrained growth in number of weapons, development of ability to target the U.S. mainland. Winning agreement, however, would require real deal‐​making, a willingness to relax sanctions in return for various limits backed by inspections and verification. Now would be the right time to indicate a willingness to wheel and deal, with the DPRK likely burdened by a coronavirus epidemic despite the regime’s denials. Washington could both offer medical aid and suspension if not removal of selected sanctions.

To buttress such an approach the U.S. should push for expanded contact as COVID-19 infections recede. Lift the prohibition on visits both ways. Encourage greater contacts, political, cultural, and economic. Offer to open official relations. Put a peace declaration and treaty on the table. None of these measures cost much. All have intrinsic benefits. And all would test Kim’s intentions. If he still won’t deal, Washington could shift to containment by the North’s neighbors, who have the most at stake in peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

In short, failure is an option. However, we won’t know unless the administration presses forward with the diplomatic opportunity which it created by engaging Kim. Over the last eight years he has “grown” in office, after a fashion, and could be the North Korean to finally make peace with America. But only if Washington addresses Pyongyang’s interests and abandons the hopeless question for an all‐​or‐​nothing deal.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co‐​author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.