SEOUL – Much like his father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s new young leader is viewed by much of the outside world with a heady mix of incomprehension, ridicule and fear.
In early March, people were shaking their heads in bemusement at photos of Kim Jong Un partying with flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang. One month later, they’re wondering if he might be on the brink of tipping the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophic conflict.
The crisis, with its nuclear threats and Kim’s exhortations to his troops to “break the waists of the crazy enemies and totally cut their windpipes” has put him firmly in the global spotlight.
But Kim remains an enigmatic figure. An often-used media qualifier, and one that has taken on an ominous ring in recent weeks as tensions between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington have soared, is “inexperienced.” While Kim Jong Il was well groomed before taking power, the young Kim had barely warmed the successor’s chair when his father died in December 2011.
And after less than 16 months on the job, he has taken his country to the brink of conflict in the very first crisis he has faced.
For Alexandre Mansourov, a visiting scholar at Johnn Hopkins University, Kim’s personal inexperience is worryingly matched by the outside world’s inexperience in dealing with him.
“I think we still don’t know what he’s doing, to be honest,” Mansourov said. “Although he practiced brinkmanship all the time, there was a record of Kim Jong Il stepping back from the brink.
“With his son, we don’t have a track record yet. We don’t know what his limits are, how far we can push him or whether he has any brakes or not,” he said.
In South Korea — which has more experience than any nation with the North’s mercurial behavior — analysts say that what others see as reckless “adventurism” on Kim’s part may in fact be well-calibrated pragmatism.
“Kim only had a short time to prepare for leadership, which meant he had to move all the faster and more aggressively when it came his way, to secure his control on the power elite,” said Chang Yong Seok, researcher at Seoul National University. “It’s not so unusual. Kim Jong Il was still solidifying his status as successor when he declared a semistate of war at the height of the first crisis over the North’s nuclear program in 1993-94.”
In a regime whose inner workings are as opaque as North Korea’s, there have inevitably been questions as to whether Kim is really in charge at all — or just a puppet manipulated by a coterie of top generals and officials.
Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, dismisses such speculation outright. “I believe he has shown himself to be in full control of the party and the military,” Yang said, pointing to Kim’s “resolute” and even ruthless purge of top officials.
Where, then, is he taking his country?
Kim has followed his father’s playbook of engineering a crisis and then sharply driving up the stakes to a level where a skittish international community offers concessions to lower tensions. But it’s a worn playbook, and this time a dry-eyed and unblinking U.S. and South Korea have chosen to stare the North down.
“Its important to understand that a lot of what we see and hear are largely meant for a domestic audience,” Daniel Pinkston at the International Crisis Group, said. “When the (joint South Korea-U.S. military drills conclude at the end of April), the message will be: ‘Look. They were going to invade us with their B-52s . . . but they didn’t because of our nuclear deterrent and, above all, because of our savior — the great marshal, Kim Jong Un.’
“That’s how it works,” he said.