North Korea: a breakout moment for Kim Jong-un?

Until he executed his powerful uncle last month, Kim 'could call up Dennis Rodman but he couldn't call up military strikes,' says one observer. Now concern is rising about the secretive leader.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (third from r.) awards party and state commendations in this undated photograph released by North Korea’s news agency.

Since taking control of the world's most secretive state in 2011, North Korea's Kim Jong-un has yet to meet any world leaders. Eric Schmidt of Google made it to Pyongyang last year but Mr. Kim didn't have the time. His most notable visits have been from American basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bulls rebounder who serenaded young Kim on his birthday this month.

The Rodman carnival this month continues a tradition of viewing the North through media satire. Yet in Asia worry is building sharply about the little-known Kim, who sits atop an isolated and repressive family dynasty that has nuclear weapons. Purges in the North rose in the past year, and the number of public executions, which had been falling, doubled.

A turning point came last month when Kim ordered the execution of his influential uncle Jang Song-thaek, his No. 2 and seen as the most promising interlocutor with China. The move was a shock – and is widely being interpreted as a breakout moment from the guiding transitional structure built for Kim by his father, Kim Jong-il.

Whether Kim is actually becoming more despotic – or has himself been maneuvered into dangerous waters in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) – is under debate. To be sure, the 30-something leader (no one seems to know his precise age) faces a difficult conundrum. It is one he inherited from his grandfather and father: North Korea must open and reform to become economically viable. Yet real change will undercut the system of cult loyalty that provides the rationale for the Kim family's existence. Change could bring collapse.

"We don't know and maybe never knew what balance in the DPRK looks like, but we can now say this is not balance," says Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, speaking of Mr. Jang's assassination. "A peaceful outcome is harder to see. North Korea is pushing the peninsula towards confrontation."

Two years ago when Kim took the reins, he looked like a reformer. His first speech hinted at experimentation. He called for change and an end to belt-tightening. His time at a Swiss boarding school was lauded amid talk of a China model of economic opening. (So far the main new economic project is a luxury ski resort with a lift costing $8 million.)

But last spring he grabbed the world's attention by successfully testing two missiles and a nuclear device. When the United Nations responded with sanctions, he threatened to incinerate US Pacific military bases and a few American cities, along with Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

No DPRK military assets were seriously deployed and by summer the bluster ended. The North even started asking the South to restart an industrial park at Kaesong, a joint venture that it closed during the spring bellicosity.

Mostly, the sound and fury was viewed as what might be called the North being the North. Indeed, until late last November, many Korea-watchers were relatively sanguine about Kim.

One reason was the presence of "the regents." Before his death, Kim Jong-il handpicked a set of elders to oversee the young Kim. These regents were figures of gravitas who offered a check on Kim's impulses and ensured his safety and stability. They included relatives, top military leaders, and others vetted in the North's peculiarities.

"The regent system had a code; it had a logic. It was a yoke of constraint. Kim Jong-un could call up Dennis Rodman but he couldn't call up military strikes," says Ken Gause, director of international affairs at the Washington-based research firm CNA Strategic Studies, who recently published a first year appraisal of Kim's rule. 

One regent was Jang, Kim's uncle. Jang had never been overly enthusiastic about Kim, and it is well known he had backed Kim's older brother for the top spot. According to intelligence reports, a tipping point came this past fall when Kim ordered a corruption investigation into a lucrative fishery run by Jang that ended in a shooting match between the soldiers Kim sent in and Jang's men, who reportedly refused to cooperate with the Army without Jang's approval. 

Analysts agree the older regent was cutting into Kim's power and financing. Jang had greatly expanded his influence and was asserting control over more of the hard currency streams that represent power in North Korea. The role of Kim's ailing aunt, the estranged wife of Jang, and herself a regent, is unclear.

"People who want to understand North Korea shouldn't read think tank reports," Mr. Gause says. "They should watch 'I, Claudius.' "

Jang's elimination adds to a pattern of disappearing senior figures. Ri Yong-ho, a top military commander and regent, disappeared in July 2012. Of the seven men who accompanied Kim Jong-il's casket, five are gone; active regents are now down to one.

"There are no constraints, no brakes on this guy," says Alexandre Mansourov, a Pyongyang-educated visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington who views recent events with pessimism. "He is past our understanding. Nobody would have predicted he could brutally execute his uncle. Jang underestimated Kim, and I hope we do not underestimate Kim."

Gause takes a more intermediate line: "Yes, Kim is impulsive, hotheaded, selfish. But at the end of the day he was chosen to lead because he was perceived to have instincts that match those needed for the North Korean regime."

One reason Kim is unknown is that his father delayed in choosing an heir. Then Kim's rise took place in a flash. It was not until the year after he suffered a stroke in 2008 that "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il fast-tracked his third son (from his second and favorite wife) to be his successor. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified the year of Kim Jong-il's stroke.]

Kim Jong-il himself sat at his own father's feet for decades learning how to run the North and heading the propaganda department. Kim Jong-un spent only two years as an apprentice.

Part of that training came in 2010. The elder Kim walked him through a military adventure involving the shelling of a South Korean island (killing four) and the sinking of a South Korean Coast Guard vessel (46 lost). [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the number of fatalities in these incidents.]

Seoul was infuriated and the North denied responsibility. But afterward, the young Kim got catapulted from a civilian to a four-star general – giving him needed credentials in a nation where a quarter of the budget goes to the Army.

Yet beyond the basic outline little is known with certainty about his upbringing. Accurate information out of the North is unavailable. Intelligence services rely on defector networks whose quality varies. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist at George Washington University in Washington who profiles world leaders for US intelligence, says that when it comes to North Korean leaders, "every other word you write is a caveat."

In the standard composite of Kim, he is said to like video games, has grown up shy and pampered, and went through a wild and impulsive period. "He's a modern kid. He's probably on Twitter. His dad stayed at home, but Kim Jong-un gets out," says Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, Calif.

Some of the best insight comes from a Japanese sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who worked for the Kim family. He says the young Kim likes basketball and was good at coaching teams on the court, and says Kim often watched Western films with his father, who had a collection of 20,000 DVDs. Kim likes action films and actors like Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude van Damme, and Clint Eastwood.

A recent RAND Corp. study credits Jang with enrolling Kim at the Swiss school and spending six months with him as he adjusted. After Switzerland, Kim was not seen in public for seven years.

Now that Kim appears to be breaking out or shedding his father's yoke, what will he do? Ironically, as Dr. Mansourov points out, now that Jang is gone maybe China will finally invite Kim to a meeting. Can the leader of what Mr. Snyder calls "the worst-governed country on earth" find a path out of the darkness that has en-swathed the nation?

Or will the regime continue to plod along with rusted equipment, as a counterfeiter, a meth producer, an exporter of coal and ginseng, and leaning on China – even though it has billions in untapped minerals and a talented population?

Indeed, given its location, the North's economy should be growing at 10 percent per year. It sits in the midst of one of the most dynamic regions on earth. The urban corridor that arcs from Beijing and Shanghai to Seoul and Busan, then jumps to Osaka and Tokyo, represents nearly a billion people with high levels of education living in a highly networked and robust infrastructure. This East Asia corridor has been called the first "Giga-city." It fairly bursts with high tech, manufacturing, agriculture, energy, and information technology.

Yet North Korea languishes amid this productivity like a condemned tenement on a posh suburban street. Rather than benefit from its surroundings, the police state North obsessively spends a good deal of its paltry wealth on keeping the rest of Asia out.

The regime is repressive in a way unthinkable in the West. Loyalty to the Kim family is paramount. There is no exile movement, no dissent, no opposition newspaper. Access to South Korean media is outlawed, as is free travel. Famously repressive Cold War states like Albania and Romania were fabulous models of freedom compared to the North today. 

Pyongyang has no public phone book. There are now reportedly higher levels of whispering and cynicism among people, and the regime has of late talked about a "youth problem." But with a surfeit of secret police, notions of an Arab Spring or Berlin Wall moment are unlikely.

On the contrary, great loyalty to Kim continues to be expressed by many ordinary North Koreans. "The resiliency of the North Korean system is extraordinary," Gause says. "It defies political gravity, and it weathers conditions that would tear any other nation apart."

Still, the regime faces problems. Why public executions doubled last year (according to South Korean intelligence) is unclear as are the rise in purges. This year North Korea faces a formal United Nations inquiry into crimes against humanity that could theoretically result in an indictment by the International Criminal Court. (There is reportedly a great deal of shuffling among the notorious prison camps in the North, with Camp 22 near the Chinese border being closed; some 20,000 camp inmates are now missing say human rights groups.) 

Many analysts say Kim can't be blamed for inheriting a country built by his grandfather Kim Il-sung. The first Kim was an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter discovered by Stalin. He had little education, and was so provincial that by age 33 he had never seen a large city. He controlled his country by charisma and extreme brutality.

In "The Guerrilla Dynasty," Australian scholar Adrian Buzo sums up the underlying mentality of the state Kim Il-sung bequeathed and that has remained stubbornly intact:

"The purges, the elaborate, multiple overlapping security agencies, the continuing high levels of repression, the near-paranoiac avoidance of all unnecessary foreign contact, the shrill insistence on unconditional loyalty and the torrents of self-righteous abuse heaped on domestic and foreign adversaries reflected a world view that discounted trust, equality, or interdependence as a viable basis for relations between individuals as well as nations."

In one sense, it is still early days for Kim Jong-un. Analysts note that Kim Il-sung's patron, the Soviet Union, is gone. Kim's grandson, who has traveled and seen the world in a way his grandfather never did, lives in a different era. Whether he can delegate or share power and improve his nation's fortune remains unanswered.

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