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Portrait of Kim Jong-un - Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Portrait of Kim Jong-un - Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

In North Korea, there’s no such thing as real elections or freedom. It is a pure dictatorship, and a dynastic one at that. We are including Kim Jong-un in this gallery of portraits because he seems to be introducing a form of renewal in his country's strategy - and also because Mr Trump has de facto turned him into an influential leader on the international scene. Deputy Director at the Foundation for Strategic Research Bruno Tertrais explores the context underpinning the leader of Pyongyang’s sudden promotion.

Michel Duclos, Geopolitical Special Advisor, editor of this series.


One is never suspicious enough of dictators’ sons.
Because they are young, and often educated abroad, one always thinks they will be more "modern", and thus necessarily - despite this causal link being by no means self-evident - more "democratic".
Unfortunately, they sometimes turn out to be worse than their fathers, as was the case in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, or Hafez al-Assad's Syria. At best, they recycle the methods used by their elders, as in Saudi Arabia. This is not surprising: the son is educated in the idea that the leader can do whatever he wants. Moreover, the son must prove that he can live up to his father’s achievements. And while this model may particularly apply to the authoritarian patriarchal cultures of the Arab world, it is almost universal, and is also present in places like Haiti for instance, with Baby Doc, the son of the sinister Jean-Claude Duvalier.

He seems to embody a form of paleo-authoritarianism.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, but North Korea is not far behind in this ranking, and has the reputation of being the most closed. Kim Jong-un leads a strange country, which somewhat resembles the autarkic Albania during the Cold War, but with pronounced East Asian characteristics. Baby Nuc, as he could be nicknamed, is an exception in many ways.

Two of Kim Jong-un’s characteristics distinguish him from the other leaders in this series. First, he seems to embody a form of paleo-authoritarianism - but it is precisely the longevity of this political regime, and its disproportionate importance in contemporary international strategic relations, that challenge and justify his inclusion in this gallery of portraits. Second, he is, in a unique way, the second heir to a regime founded in 1948 - which, even by the standards of the world's many political dynasties, makes him exceptional.

The country is often referred to as the last Stalinist state on the planet. This description is in fact incomplete and so approximate that it almost becomes irrelevant. The regime's political genes certainly do partly come from the era of triumphant communism - but at least just as much as from the Japanese occupation and Korean mythology. It is a sort of monarchy based on divine right (Mount Paektu, the supposed birthplace of Kim Jong-il, is sacred in the history of the peninsula), at the heart of which lies kinship. Kinship of the ruling dynasty of course, but also that of the North Koreans, know to be a "pure breed". And while Stalinism refers to an emancipatory father, the North Korean state wants to embody a protective mother of children too fragile to be exposed to the world. Hence the Juche ideology (self-sufficiency).

Kim Jong-un was (probably) born in 1984. We now a few things about his childhood in Switzerland, even if the exact dates of his stay there remain uncertain. Like his older brother Kim Jong-chul and his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, he benefited from the comfort and quality of the Swiss educational system, and spent two years (1998-2000) at the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli school in Koeniz, south of Bern - under a false identity, of course. He was a quiet young man, well integrated, friendly and sometimes funny, but also impulsive and competitive (he apparently hated losing), who liked basketball and Nike shoes, Emmental cheese, and karaoke. He still to this day has a passion for skiing, Swiss watches, and the famous Chicago Bulls team - player Dennis Rodman, whom he qualifies as a friend, is one of the leader’s very few Western visitors.

His older brother being considered "effeminate" (he is a rock music fan), the young Jong-un was promoted general and vice president of the Central Military Commission, and thus the heir apparent, in 2010. When his father Kim Jong-il died, he became the youngest head of state in the world (around the age of 27).

Yet his reference in the family seems to rather be his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, who ruled for 46 years. North Korean commentators often emphasize Kim Jong-un’s physical resemblance to him, partly because of his strange haircut.

In any case, he also inherited methods of government from his ancestors. In 2013, he had his uncle Jang Song-thaek executed. In 2017, he had his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who used to frequent casinos and amusement parks abroad a little too often, and was happy to criticize the regime, eliminated with a nerve agent, at Kuala Lumpur Airport. This might be a family tradition: Kim Man-il, his father's younger brother, drowned when he was four years old, and rumor has it he was pushed into the water by his brother...

Be that as it may, the Kim family likes to enjoy life. Parties of the elite where cognac flowed endlessly were well known in Kim Jong-il's time, and the fact that the French liqueur was one of the first commodities to be affected by UN sanctions in 2006 is not completely unrelated. Kim Jong-un, who spent time on the French Riviera as a child, also loves amusement parks, and had a dolphinarium built in the North Korean capital. Ri Sol-ju, the leader's wife - a marriage that dates from 2009 or 2010, but was only revealed to the North Korean population in 2012 - often carries Dior or Chanel bags. The couple has two children - both girls, according to some sources. If this is the case and if she does not want to be repudiated, Ri Sol-ju will probably quickly have to give the nation an heir.

He is said to be popular among the younger generation of Pyongyang's highly protected elite, who lives separately from the rest of the country.

Kim is not the head of state, which is an honorary and purely representational function entrusted to an apparatchik, the "President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly" (his grandfather remains the country’s "eternal President" of the country). The "Supreme Leader" is both "Chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea", "Chairman of the State Affairs Commission", and "Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army" (and his sister and very close advisor Kim Yo-jong plays a key role in the "Propaganda and Agitation Department"). While he is certainly not anyone’s puppet - all testimonies agree on the fact that he is the one making the decisions and that he perfectly masters the issues discussed - he does not govern alone and must in particular constantly make sure that the army supports him. Yet he is said to be popular among the younger generation of Pyongyang's highly protected elite, who lives separately from the rest of the country. And unlike his father, he frequently speaks in public and knows how to adequately stage himself.

Pyongyang has probably finally reached its ultimate goal today: the ability to threaten the American territory with a nuclear-armed device.

Since Kim Jong-un came to power, the ballistic and nuclear program has accelerated gradually and dramatically, with a record of 24 missile tests (and two nuclear tests) in 2016, access to the intercontinental range in 2017, and, in the same year, the largest nuclear test ever conducted by an emerging state. This acceleration would apparently be the result of a top-down change in programmatic culture: instead of eliminating those responsible for shooting failures, North Korean engineers would have been told that failures were normal and instructive steps...

In any case, Pyongyang has probably finally reached its ultimate goal today: the ability to threaten the American territory with a nuclear-armed device. It is this "completion" (sic) of the program, much more than Donald Trump's "maximum pressure", that enabled Kim Jong-un to launch his charm offensive towards South Korea during the 2018 Olympic Games, and then to propose a bilateral meeting to the American President - even if China's sanctions and pressure may have played a role.

Yet anyone who thinks that Pyongyang has come to its senses would be better off reading the North Korean statements closely: totally abandoning nuclear and ballistic programs has never been an option, as the latter guarantee the survival of a truly paranoid regime, and are considered the country's "powerful treasured sword". In fact, in 2018, the Supreme Leader ordered the large-scale production of these devices. For him, this investment is in no way contradictory to the country's economic development: it is even the necessary condition for it. (The byungjin policy consists in investing efforts on both fronts.) It is also most probably the condition on which the durability of his own personal legitimacy within the system depends.

While Kim Jong-un does wish for this economic development, he also knows that he has a historic opportunity to change the situation in the peninsula. What does he see before him?

On the one hand, an American President who, while he often confounds North Koreans who are accustomed to much more predictable Western leaders, is nevertheless considered a man of "deals" in Pyongyang. This represents a significant opportunity for the regime, especially given that Mr Trump never tires of criticizing America's traditional military alliances...

Nuclear capacity enables to take risks, and the young North Korean leader may have surprises in store for us - be they good or bad.

Moreover, did the latter not say, as early as the 2016 election campaign, that he was ready to "eat a hamburger" with Kim Jong-un? This explains why North Korea has often avoided fueling the flames when reacting to the American President’s most violent jests. In 2017, after the latter's virulent intervention at the United Nations General Assembly, Kim Jong-un answered him wearing modern glasses and surrounded by books, speaking firmly but calmly. In fact, he has even been refraining from personally criticizing the American President lately.

On the other hand, and just as importantly, stands the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, elected in 2017, who is keen to renew ties with the opening-up policy advocated by some of his predecessors, and who is ready to go far to ensure a détente in the peninsula.

In such a context, Kim Jong-un could succeed in loosening ties between Seoul and Washington, thus aiming for a treaty that would truly end the Korean War, given that only an armistice was signed in 1953 between Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing. With the neutralization of South Korea in mind, and, undoubtedly, reunification as the ultimate goal. Nuclear capacity enables to take risks, and the young North Korean leader may have surprises in store for us - be they good or bad.

It would in any case be risky to bet on the inevitable future collapse of the regime: it has so far shown great resilience and a certain adaptability, without ever giving up its fundamental values.

Kim Jong-un rejuvenated the system by renewing part of the ruling elite. If he is skillful enough and manages to at least guarantee the survival of the ruling clan, and unless he has a health issue, he will remain in power for life. He could thus become, in the second half of the century, the equivalent of Queen Elizabeth II, who is currently the oldest head of state in office. It would in any case be risky to bet on the inevitable future collapse of the regime: it has so far shown great resilience and a certain adaptability, without ever giving up its fundamental values.

Yes to glasnost, but no to perestroika. Economically, after overcoming the famine of the 1990s, it is managing to keep its head above the water thanks to a winning combination of trading through front companies, illegal trafficking, and extortion from its neighbors.

But what would happen if Mr Trump finds out he's been made a fool of? At best, he will move on - he might consider the image of the Singapore summit to be sufficient to make history. At worst, things could deteriorate quickly. The frightening scenario put forward by expert Jeffrey Lewis in 2018, which ends in a nuclear war, should provide food for thought on this matter.

The settling of scores within the ruling clan in Pyongyang often led it to be compared with the series Game of Thrones. And Kim Jong-un's uncanny physique may encourage us to compare him to Joffrey Baratheon, a cruel, narcissistic and perverse child-king. However, the place has already been taken: George R. R. Martin, the author of the series, stated that his protagonist rather reminds him of Donald Trump. Moreover, Kim Jong-un's personality seems a little more complex, and his political flair is as undeniable as his ambition.

Another comparison thus comes to mind: that of Kylo Ren, a character from the last episodes of Star Wars. Young, ambitious and brutal - but not to the point of being totally inhuman - he wants to become Supreme Leader of the First Order and eliminate the Jedi knights (which also involves, by the way, eliminating his uncle). And his model is his grandfather. He whispers before the latter's remains: "I will finish what you started".    


Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne.

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