SEOUL – In power for barely more than a year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has adhered overwhelmingly to the policies of his father, using a familiar mix of internal repression and nuclear showmanship while all but dashing hopes he would emerge as a Deng Xiaoping-style reformer.
Although analysts caution that Kim can still change course, the apparent status quo on policy carries dark implications, extending — perhaps for a generation to come — a government that relishes isolation, threatens its neighbors, values weapons over food for its people and keeps roughly 1 in every 120 of its citizens in gulags.
Tuesday’s underground nuclear detonation, coupled with a recent long-range rocket launch and a string of fierce rhetoric toward the United States, represents a clear borrowing from the playbook of Kim Jong Il. And analysts say that the young Kim, believed to be 30, has good reason to embrace his father’s cold-blooded strategies.
That’s because Kim Jong Il succeeded on one count: He held onto power for nearly 20 years, even as he kept the nation destitute and as other dictators across the world were overthrown or killed.
Kim Jong Il used his elaborate internal police network to snuff out rivals and dissenters. He banned outside information to keep people unaware of greater riches elsewhere. He used his country’s nuclear weapons program to foster a sense of national strength and, at the same time, occasionally extracted aid from the United States and its allies by making short-lived offers to curtail the program. Kim died in December 2011 of a heart attack.
“Kim Jong Il’s policy worked,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “You can call it dysfunctional, but Kim Jong Il was a winner and a survivor. . . . If Kim Jong Un follows (suit),” Lankov said, “he might still live and rule for many, many years.”
For several months last summer, there were signs — reported on by visiting diplomats and by defector groups with informants in the North — that Kim was experimenting with modest agricultural reforms that would allow farmers a greater chance to make private profits. Those reports coincided with a notable attempt in Pyongyang’s state-run media to portray its young leader as a jovial man of the people.
Months later, analysts and defectors say, there is little evidence that any limited capitalism has taken root. Meantime, the media portrayal appears unrelated to Kim’s policy preferences and last July, North Korea’s own state outlets said that it’s a “foolish and silly dream” to expect reform.
“It was a case of wishful thinking,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA North Korea analyst. “If anything, Kim seems more belligerent than his father was.”
One year ago, Pyongyang reneged on an agreement with Washington to halt weapons tests in exchange for food aid. Since then, the North has launched two long-range rockets, detonated a nuclear weapon and media reports suggest it is also continuing to ship missile or nuclear parts to Syria and Iran.
If anything, North Korea has become more dangerous than it was under Kim Jong Il, who came to power in 1994 after Kim Il Sung’s death. The North’s latest nuclear test was its most powerful. Its December rocket launch was the first successful attempt to send a satellite into orbit, following three failures.
It remains unclear whether Kim is solely responsible for the North’s major decisions over the past year. Some analysts think he receives crucial guidance from a small team of family confidantes. Others say he has quickly built up his individual power.
When it comes to rocket launches and nuclear tests, Pyongyang’s state-run media mouthpieces try to give full credit to Kim. Following the nuclear test, North Korea again paid homage to the young leader, showing a series of interviews with Pyongyang residents. “Our leader Kim Jong Un’s courage was made widely apparent to the world through this success,” one man said. Another said, “We will follow the leader Kim Jong Un and pour fire and thunder on the heads of (our) enemies.”
But others roll their eyes, including Lee Gwang Lim, who defected from the North in 2007.
“People had some hope for Kim Jong Un about economic growth when he became leader. But his policy only benefits officials and citizens in Pyongyang,” Lee said.