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 younger Kim, thought 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 on to power for nearly 20 years, even as he kept the nation destitute and as other dictators across the world were overthrown or killed by rebels.
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.
When Kim died of a heart attack in December 2011, he was given an hours-long funeral, with mourners thronging the streets of Pyongyang and his hearse draped in a revolutionary flag. His youngest son was then named successor, the third in a family line that began with the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
“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 Eun follows [suit], he might still live and rule for many, many years.”
‘A case of wishful thinking’
For several months in the summer, there were signs — according to reports by visiting diplomats and by defector groups with informants in the North — that Kim Jong Eun was experimenting with modest agricultural reforms that would offer farmers a greater chance to make private profits. Those reports coincided with a notable attempt in North Korea’s state-run media to portray its young leader as a jovial man of the people, accompanied by a well-dressed wife, visiting amusement parks and attending pop music performances.
Months later, analysts and defectors say, there is little evidence that any limited capitalism has taken root. Meanwhile, the media portrayal — though purposeful in image-building — appears unrelated to Kim’s policy preferences. In July, state media said it’s a “foolish and silly dream” to expect reform and opening.
“It was a case of wishful thinking,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation and a former North Korea analyst at the CIA. “If anything, Kim seems more belligerent than his father was.”