Updated: Dec 4, 2018
Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, First Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Chair of the Central Military Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, Leader of the Presidium of the Politburo and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong Un is the highest ranking political figure in the DPR Korea and is the de facto head of state. His premiership has taken his country down a different path than his predecessors and, at the time of writing, allowed for a nearly unprecedented detente between North Korea, South Korea and the United States. He has shifted during his tenure from a figure reviled in the international arena into a keen diplomat in the space of less than a year. From developing nuclear weaponry and inciting continued hatred for the United States and it’s allies, to pushing for closer diplomatic relations with it’s neighbours and former enemies. His premiership has also allowed for economic and domestic reinvigoration in various industries from agriculture to tourism, in stark contrast to previous ‘Songun’ politics. Kim Jong Un has maintained the historical and cultural aspects of his country, the strong sense of nationalism, patriotism and single hearted unity have remained, whilst the direction of the country on the international stage has shifted dramatically - where that will lead and whether or not it will continue remains to be seen.
Kim Jong Un is one of the three sons fathered by the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Nam famously fell out of favour for the leadership after a series of gaffes including getting arrested en-route to Disneyland with a false passport. It has been reported that Kim Jong Il considered his other son, Kim Jong Chol, to be too feminine and lacking in important qualities required to allow him to take he helm of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the country as a whole. Kim Jong Un was reportedly the most favoured by his father to succeed him as Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Throughout 2009, Kim Jong Un began to rise through the ranks of the political establishment as news began to spread that Kim Jong Il had potentially chosen him to be his successor. During this time, relations with the Republic of Korea were at an all-time low resulting in the shelling of Yeonpyong-do and the sinking of the Cheonan naval vessel. It was reported in the DPRK that Kim Jong Un was involved in some capacity, however since this cannot be verified, some have suggested that the announcement of his involvement was just a move to boost his military credentials ahead of his succession. Before 2010, much of the news around Kim Jong Un was based on hearsay, however in 2010 he was promoted to the rank of Daejang and granted numerous political positions including being made a member of the Central Committee of the WPK and becoming a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. His first major appearance was alongside his father in October 2010 at the 65th anniversary celebration for the party.
Assuming Power 2011-2013
On the 17th of December 2011, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il suffered a fatal heart attack, reportedly on his personal train. This immediately elevated Kim Jong Un to the position of Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Following his fathers death, the media began to push the party line that Kim Jong Un was the only one who could succeed his father and continue the national revolution and maintain his grandfathers Juche ideology which was firmly the ideology of the nation by this point. During the following weeks and months, all the titles once held by his father were granted to Kim Jong Un. The first of which included Supreme Commander of the KPA which he was declared on the 24th of December, this was later formalised on the 30th by the politburo. One of the first public appearances of Kim Jong Un as leader of the country was at his fathers funeral. He had been made a leading member of the funeral committee weeks earlier. Alongside his uncle Jong Song Thaek, a close family member, by marriage, of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Many analysts believed that he would act as regent to the young leader who was considered too young to take full control immediately after his fathers sudden passing.
During the following year, Kim Jong Un received more titles that had previously been held by his father. Kim Jong Un was elected to the 4th WPK conference in April 2012. A single day conference during which he was declared Chair of the Central Military Commission, Chairman of the National Defence Commission (later abolished and replaced by the State Affairs Commission), Leader of the Presidium of the Politburo and First Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Since his father retained his title of General Secretary of the WPK posthumously (Similar to Kim Il Sung and the title of President), Kim Jong Un was the first holder of the new First Secretary position.
During the following years, Kim Jong Un began consolidating his position as leader, most notably with the arrest and execution of his uncle Jong Song Thaek in 2013. A member of the National Defence Commission, he was considered the second most powerful figure in the country and his removal was seen as the first sign that Kim Jong Un had assumed total control of his country.
Economy & Nuclear Program
Kim Jong Un and his premiership has been dominated by one signature policy. The development of a national nuclear defence force alongside socialist economic construction has been the mantra followed by the Pyongyang government since Kim Jong Un came to power. By 2011, the DPRK had already conducted two nuclear tests (one in 2006 and another in 2009) along with numerous missile tests. These tests took a more high profile role in North Korea’s foreign policy and even it’s society from 2013 onwards. The trigger to the 2013 North Korea crisis was a nuclear test in February, the first such test under Kim Jong Un and the third nuclear test in the country’s history, the previous taking place in 2009. What followed was Kim Jong Un’s first foray onto the international stage in which he defined his foreign policy strategy against the Republic of Korea and the United States. Numerous missile tests occurred throughout the crisis and the DPRK declared it would no longer be limited by the 1953 armistice. In April, Pyongyang announced the Yongbyon facility would be reopened and continue to develop their nuclear technology. Throughout the crisis, Pyongyang claimed they were ready and willing to attack any potential aggressors with their new missile and nuclear technology. Despite the lack of evidence suggesting the DPRK could strike anywhere in the United States in 2013, it was a significant power move by Kim Jong Un, demonstrating for the first time that he and his country were still a force to be reckoned with and that he was the absolute power in the country. The crisis was over by the summer of 2013 and whilst the situation remained tense for the following 4 years, this series of provocative acts defined the first half decade of Kim Jong Un’s premiership.
In recent years, the economy has taken over from the nuclear program as the main focus of Kim Jong Un’s government. During the tense decade during which the DPRK was in the process of developing it’s weapons, it was important that they maintained a war-footing to prevent any foreign adversaries from striking their missile and nuclear development sites for fear of sparking another Korean War. However, with recent diplomatic overtures emanating from Pyongyang, the economy and living standards of the people have become from page news items. In the weeks and months following the summit in Singapore, Kim Jong Un visited numerous towns and cities in the north of the country. This area is considered by many to be the most economically lacklustre region in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. What was unique about this trip however was the willingness of Kim Jong Un to call out officials on their mistakes and publicly state that many facilities he visited were not at a high enough standard. In previous years, the leaders visited pristine towns and farms and footage from those visits were broadcast nationally. This shift in inspection style from Kim Jong Un suggests that real effort is going to be focused on improving the living standards of everyday people. This is likely to be achieved using funding that was previously injected into the weapons program since, whilst analysts are undecided on whether or not the missile and nuclear programs are still going ahead in the country, they are certainly not progressing at the speed we have seen in the last couple of years and therefore leftover funding can be used for ’socialist economic development’. This marks a sharp shift in domestic policy in the country and as long as the current detente remains on the peninsula, we could see a rapid improvement in living standards for citizens outside of the major cities such as Pyongyang and Wonsan.
Kim Jong Un: Diplomat
2018 was a year of peace for the Korean Peninsula, relatively speaking of course. The first major diplomatic move made by Kim Jong Un was in his New Years address in which he announced the completion of the ‘national nuclear force’ and in the weeks that followed, working level talks began to allow a joint-korean team to compete in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. From here, things moved very fast for Kim Jong Un. Over the next few months he made his first oversees visit as leader of the country - to China to meet President Xi. Then he made history as the first leader of the DPRK to cross the demarcation line at the JSA to meet with Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea. These meetings culminated in a major summit in Singapore with US President Trump, the first such meeting between a sitting Supreme Leader and US President. Despite the lack of solid agreements and the general consensus amongst analysts that North Korea came out on top in negotiations and has yet to make and solid concessions, the year of diplomacy was a marked shift in Kim Jong Un’s foreign policy. Whether or not you believe that Pyongyang is genuinely willing to surrender it’s nuclear weapons, the improved ties with the Republic of Korea have not been seen since the early 2000s and Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine policy. Even compared to that however, the dramatic turnaround from hostility to peace talks is something we have not seen before on the peninsula. Kim Jong Un seems to understand that in order to develop the economy, sanctions must be lifted, or at least eased. Now he has a formidable nuclear arsenal, securing peace through talks with the south and allies such as Russia and China may allow him to lift enough restrictions to bring trade back to his country and begin improving the economy. This is doubly good for the government since it would instil a sense of patriotism back to the country which may have been waning in the far reaches of the DPRK in the wake of the Arduous March in the 1990s and heavy spending on prestige weapons projects rather than on the economy.
The previous peace talks in the early 2000s broke down for numerous reasons, and Kim Jong Il restarted his weapons programs and missile testing. Many analysts have warned that until concrete progress on denuclearisation is complete, we cannot rule out that this is a tactic to bide time for the weapons program. However it could be equally as likely that Kim Jong Un intends to maintain his weapons but is legitimate about halting their production. From the start of this project, the weapons program has been about national defence. If the government truly believes that it has achieved enough strength and power through it’s nuclear force that it no longer needs to feel threatened, it may attempt to build a peace regime on the peninsula with the aid of China and Russia whilst maintaining it’s defence force. This could explain why talks with Seoul have progressed much faster than talks with Washington. The two Koreas are in the midst of new railway projects and demilitarisation of the Joint Security Area whilst the US is struggling to set up high-level talks with Pyongyang officials. For the second time, Kim Jong Un surprised the world with his aptitude for the job. Many believed he would be toppled as leader within a year of taking control, however he proved that he had what it took to govern the country and maintain control as his father and grandfather had. Once again, his aptitude for diplomacy caught many onlookers off guard and so far, he appears to be winning. At the time of writing, US officials are hyping the second Trump-Kim summit planned to take place early next year, what happens there and the results of such a summit remain to be seen, however it is almost certain that this is only the beginning for Kim Jong Un and his premiership if what we have seen so far is anything to go by.