SEOUL — In power for barely more than a year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun has adhered overwhelmingly to the policies of his father, using a familiar mix of internal repression and nuclear showmanship while all but dashing hopes that he would emerge as a reformer.
Although analysts caution that Kim can still change course, the apparent status quo on policy carries dark implications, prolonging a government that relishes isolation, threatens its neighbors, values weapons over food for its people and keeps roughly one 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 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.”
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.”
One year ago, North Korea 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, threatened in the state media to assassinate the South Korean president and vowed to abandon its nuclear program only if every other country also gave up its nuclear weapons. Media reports suggest that North Korea also continues to ship missile and nuclear parts to Syria and Iran.
Many analysts say 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, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. The North’s December rocket launch was the first successful attempt, after three failures, to send a satellite into orbit. (There was an additional failed launch with no satellite.) The country has also drastically increased border security, slicing nearly in half the rate at which defectors have been able to reach South Korea.
It remains unclear whether Kim is solely responsible for the North’s major decisions in the past year. Some analysts think he receives crucial guidance from a small team of family confidants, including his uncle and aunt. Others say he has quickly built up his individual power, and they note that four of the eight elder leaders accompanying Kim Jong Il’s hearse 14 months ago have since been removed or demoted.
When it comes to rocket launches and nuclear tests, North Korea’s state media tries to give full credit to Kim Jong Eun. Photos released by North Korea in December showed Kim in what appeared to be a mission-control room; he was smoking a cigarette while watching a large-screen panel.
After the nuclear test, North Korea again paid homage to the young leader, showing interviews on state-run television with residents of Pyongyang, presumably reciting state-approved talking points.
“Our leader Kim Jong Eun’s courage was made widely apparent to the world through this success,” one man said.
“If the enemies still make demands to us,” another said, “we will follow the leader Kim Jong Eun and pour fire and thunder on the heads of those enemies.”
Analysts and defectors say that some North Koreans do feel legitimate pride in the country’s weapons program. Others roll their eyes. After North Korea’s first nuclear test, in 2006 — a fizzle that outside nations called a failure — elite Workers’ Party members traveled the country, delivering lectures about the landmark event. In Chongjin, a town in the northeast, a street banner said, “A nation with 5,000 years of history presents itself to the world as a nuclear power,” according to Lee Gwang-lim, who lived there at the time and defected in 2007.
“I remember hearing people complain about the test, saying their daily survival was an imminent task, not the nuclear test,” Lee said.
“People had some hope for Kim Jong Eun about economic growth when he became a new leader,” Lee added. “But his policy only benefits officials and citizens in Pyongyang.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.