North Korea’s leaders — Kim Il-sung, known as the “Great Leader” (in power from 1948 until his death in 1994); his son, Kim Jong-il (1994-2011), the “Dear Leader”; and his son, Kim Jong-un (2011-present), the “Great Successor” — have established the gold standard for repressive dynastic rule.
For decades, their pariah state has been a world leader in all the wrong metrics: most corrupt, most abusive, most belligerent, least free, least transparent, least democratic. But it took a bad Hollywood movie to transform Kim Jong-un from a tyrant known mostly to foreign policy wonks into a household name recognized by anyone who follows pop culture.
The FBI believes that North Korea was involved in a devastating hack on Sony Pictures, which exposed embarrassing details about the company and delayed plans to release “The Interview,” a satire about a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. We may never know the full extent of North Korea’s involvement in the affair — some experts doubt Pyongyang was behind the Sony attack — but the tsunami of media coverage moved the North Korea narrative, once covered only by serious publications, into the pages of People, TMZ and hundreds of other pop-culture media outlets.
Yet it was the pages of a landmark U.N. Human Rights Council report issued quietly a year ago that revealed a sobering picture of the “unspeakable atrocities” committed by North Korea, including forced starvation, systemic torture, extermination, enslavement and rape. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report said.
On Dec. 18, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a nonbinding resolution that denounced human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and urged the Security Council to consider sanctions against North Korean officials, while referring them to face charges in the International Criminal Court (ICC). The vote was 116-20 with 53 abstentions. Days later, the Security Council held a debate on the human rights situation in North Korea dissecting the U.N. report, which estimated that between 80,000 to 120,000 people are being held in North Korean prison camps.
China, backed by Russia, attempted to block the debate but failed. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Beijing has veto power and will likely prevent a formal referral to the ICC. But the unprecedented international rebuke was enough to trigger a furious round of diplomacy and denials by North Korea, which released three Americans from captivity in a rare gesture of conciliation while also ramping up its bombastic rhetoric.
Experts now wonder if the admittedly faint possibility of facing international justice infuriated Kim Jong-un enough that he launched the massive cyberattack on Sony. In response to the hack, Washington slapped sanctions against the North Korean government, in part to curtail the lavish lifestyles to which its top leaders have grown accustomed. But the country is already among the most economically isolated in the world, and sanctions have done little to curb Pyongyang’s appetite for nuclear weapons while serving as a convenient foil for Kim to demonize the West and galvanize support at home.
Indeed, three years into his tenure as leader of the Hermit Kingdom, the West is perhaps even more mystified by the Great Successor than it was by his father or his grandfather.
“Kim Jong-un has proven to be less predictable and more capricious in style than his father,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He has consolidated power by instilling fear and requiring absolute loyalty from his people.”
Kim’s capricious, some would say reckless style of leadership was reflected in many of the public statements released by the government in 2014. In the wake of the U.N. vote, the official Korean news agency, KCNA, put out a series of articles threatening that the North would nuke South Korea’s Blue House (their equivalent of the White House) and obliterate Japan. In May, KCNA labeled President Obama a “crossbreed” and a “wicked black monkey” and referred to South Korean President Park Geun-hye as “an old prostitute” who took marching orders from the American president. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry was derided as a “wolf with a hideous lantern jaw.”
And in December, after North Korea’s internet went down (the U.S. is widely believed to be responsible, acting in retaliation for the Sony hack), an official with North Korea’s ruling body, the National Defense Commission, asserted that Obama was “the chief culprit” for the release of “The Interview” and once again called him a monkey. But in a New Year’s address to the country, Kim also suggested that he is open to a high-level summit with South Korea’s leaders.
Kim’s personal conduct has also frequently been puzzling. In January 2014, he appeared at the grand opening of Masik Ryong, a glitzy new $100 million ski resort east of Pyongyang, in the shadow of Prison Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 8, along with his pal, the retired NBA star Dennis Rodman. The portly, bordering-on-obese Swiss-educated leader, who many believe turned 32 on Jan. 8, was subsequently seen limping in public and in September, North Korean state TV said that he was suffering from an “uncomfortable physical condition,” widely presumed to be gout.
He wasn’t seen in public for weeks. But he quickly resurfaced and in early January, state media released a video of the young leader, who has previously boasted that he could drive a car by age 3 and fly a plane by himself, perhaps to reinforce the notion that he’s firmly in control of the opaque politburo.
The youngest son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un was reportedly chosen as successor after his older brother fell out of favor for bailing on Kim Jong-il’s birthday party in favor of attending an Eric Clapton concert in Europe. According to South Korean media reports, North Korean authorities issued a directive when Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father to reject birth certificates of babies named Kim Jong-un and to revise the identity cards of those who still had his name. He also reportedly had plastic surgery to enhance the resemblance to his grandfather, who is still beloved by many older North Koreans.
Thanks mostly to defectors who have escaped to the West, we know enough about Kim Jong-un’s arbitrary, cruel leadership style that even the wildest rumors seem plausible. He may or may not have had an ex-girlfriend executed for making a pornographic video; he had his uncle and five of his aides killed but probably didn’t feed them to 120 starving dogs; a deputy within the Ministry of Public Security may have been roasted alive with a flamethrower; and a well-known director was supposedly kidnapped to build the North Korean film industry.
“I was not among those who expected young Kim to be drastically different from those who went before him, and so far it seems he has made major changes in neither diplomacy nor economics and has modeled his image-building on his father’s and grandfather’s cults of personality,” said Bradley Martin, a professor at California State University-Fresno and the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.” “I don’t know whether the youngest Kim is as hands-on as his micromanaging father, but it’s apparent that if anyone presumes to run things in an independent fashion, that person will be out.”
In this and other regards, James Schoff, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, sees plenty of similarities between Kim Jong-un and his father.
“They are similar in terms of the way that he’s kept the political leadership very centralized,” he said. “He has not pursued a ‘governing by committee’ or allowed for a collective leadership approach, and he’s been willing to administer strict punishments for perceived transgressions, as did his father. He has also paid careful attention to the military and seeing to many of their basic needs.”
But Schoff also sees some noteworthy differences between father and son.
“The cult of personality is there, but he’s also taking a more pragmatic approach of appealing to the material desires of the government and military elite in Pyongyang, and the high-profile investments in amusement, recreation and foreign goods and technology appear intended to show that he is a more modern leader who is capable of bridging to the future,” Schoff said. “He appears willing to allow most of the people to engage in private market activities so that they can survive, as long as strict limits are observed.”
Schoff noted that Kim has also paid more attention to the Korea Workers’ Party as a vehicle for support, and he has been more extroverted and looser than his father — speaking in public and allowing photos to be shot of him in a more informal way.
“[Kim] has been more image-conscious than his father in this respect,” he said.
Martin said the young ruler was a “showman” inclined to steer the country in the same direction as his father. “For him to change policies must seem to him something like a betrayal of the ideological legacy he received,” he said.
Snyder said Kim has prioritized economic development, noting that the country’s economy is now stable, even though its 25 million people still suffer from chronic malnutrition and rampant poverty. Tightly controlled tours of North Korea have expanded in recent years and a small number of foreign tourists continued to trickle into the DPRK until October, when it imposed a ban on foreign tourists in the wake of the Ebola scare. Nevertheless, the government unveiled a bizarre new tourism website in December, featuring photos of missiles, smiling medical personnel and children lying in bunk beds, among other things.
The photos of the missiles may be a bellicose reminder that the DPRK isn’t about to give up its nuclear ambitions anytime soon. Hopes that Kim might abandon those ambitions were dashed when the country conducted its third nuclear test in 2013. Last September, the International Atomic Energy Agency asserted that the Yongbyon nuclear site may be operational again based on analysis of satellite imagery.
“He is simultaneously pursuing nuclear and missile development and these policies are giving his country an expanded threat capability, building on his father’s legacy,” Snyder said.
Kim has been aggressive in building up the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and provoking South Korea, but the discussion of his human rights record at the United Nations, though relatively toothless, seems to have spooked him. Martin said that North Korean representatives abroad have been working hard to lobby against the U.N. resolution to refer Kim and his cronies to the ICC, attempting to shore up relations with Russia and China, which both wield veto power on the U.N. Security Council.
“Since North Korea’s political system is top-down in the extreme, this strongly suggests that Kim himself cares, that he doesn’t want to see his reputation tarred,” Martin said. “Of course, if he really cared about his human rights record he’d do something in that regard, change policies in a serious way. I see no reason to believe he’s heading in that direction.”
Schoff believes that Kim is troubled by the U.N. report and ICC threat but isn’t ultimately convinced that he’ll be held accountable in a court of law.
“The case is unlikely to go to an international criminal court and Kim Jong-un would defy any such ruling if it were handed down,” he said. “Kim Jong-un has bigger problems on the home front in terms of protecting himself, so I don’t think accountability in the international system is as big of a deal to him as the blow it causes to his image and that of his regime.”
Schoff said the international community has few options for confronting Kim and preventing human rights violations in North Korea save for military intervention, which he believes will not happen.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to pursue the U.N. process and other means of criticizing, publicizing and sanctioning that behavior,” he said. “The more that this kind of information gets out there, then the harder it is for China or Russia to shield Kim Jong-un and the less sympathy the North will receive from certain political factions in the South. There is a cost even if he’s not physically stopped.”
About the Author
Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.