Flush with enthusiasm following his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Trump agreed to a rare interview with a national television network that wasn’t Fox News. Still in Singapore, Trump discussed his conversation with Kim and the path forward with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos.
Stephanopoulos asked Trump what guarantees Kim had been offered to assure his confidence in his position.
“I don’t want to talk about it specifically,” Trump replied, “but we’ve given him, he’s going to be happy.”
What’s more, Trump implied, Kim could rest easy because of the support he sees from the North Korean people.
“His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor,” Trump said. “They have a great fervor.”
For someone whose position was earned only after a grueling 18-month-long competition for support from voters, the “fervor” Kim effortlessly enjoys from his people must certainly seem appealing. But it’s no mystery how that level of fervor is achieved. It simple requires applying the steps below — and then sitting back and enjoying broad public support.
We’ll start simple.
1. Insist on your own near-divine abilities.
A good place to start is by insisting that your power derives from a supernatural mandate passed down through the generations to you.
Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, ousted the nation’s Japanese oppressors, defeating them in 10,000 battles and assuming leadership of his new nation. (Historians disagree with this record of military accomplishment.) He’s seen in a divine light by many North Koreans and has been described as a god in North Korean media. The country’s calendar was reoriented to 1912, the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, demonstrated remarkable abilities at a young age.
“The first time he bowled, Kim Jong Il scored a perfect 300, according to North Korean media,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2012. “Similarly, in his first-ever round of golf, he had five hole-in-one holes for 38-under par round.” In college, he reportedly wrote 1,500 books.
Kim Jong Un matched his father’s skills as a youth. A television broadcast in the country noted his “pistol marksmanship at the ripe age of three and his mastery of seven languages,” the Chosun Ilbo reported in 2014. “The state media also claimed that Kim discovered new geographical features of the isolated country when he was in his teens and was a scholar of the achievements of famous generals from around the world.”
2. Imprison those who oppose you — or who might oppose you.
Should citizens not be compelled by being the grandson of a god and the son of a very good golfer, they can always be sent off to prison camps.
As our Adam Taylor reports, a 2014 U.N. report detailed North Korea’s camps.
“Persons who are found to have engaged in major political crimes are ‘disappeared,’ ” the U.N. report reads, “without trial or judicial order, to political prison camps (kwanliso). There, they are incarcerated and held incommunicado. … In the past, it was common that the authorities sent entire families to political prison camps for political crimes committed by close relatives (including forebears, to the third generation) on the basis of the principle of guilt by association.”
That report estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 people were held in such prisons at that point. That number, though, isn’t stable.
“The inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide,” the U.N. report reads. “The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades.”
3. Use murder, starvation and torture to keep people in line.
As with the hagiographic personal history of Kim, North Korea’s treatment of its citizens predates his tenure as the country’s leader. From the U.N. report:
“As a matter of State policy, the authorities carry out executions, with or without trial, publicly or secretly, in response to political and other crimes that are often not among the most serious crimes. The policy of regularly carrying out public executions serves to instill fear in the general population.”
“The use of torture is an established feature of the interrogation process in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, especially in cases involving political crimes. Starvation and other inhumane conditions of detention are deliberately imposed on suspects to increase the pressure on them to confess and to incriminate other persons.”
The government’s control of the economy also exacerbated a severe famine that struck in the 1990s. It delayed international assistance and worked to prevent citizens from learning about alternatives to the official food distribution system even while continuing to divert resources to the military instead of food aid.
Kim’s willingness to kill to maintain power over the North Korean people extends even to his own family. He had his uncle executed and his half brother poisoned with a nerve agent in the middle of an international airport.
4. Don’t let people see how things work in other places.
The government has a “de facto prohibition” on foreign travel, the U.N. report states, aimed in part at limiting information about the world outside North Korea. Those seeking to flee can be shot while trying to cross the border — as happened in November.
Even within the country, travel is limited, with access to the capital of Pyongyang limited on political grounds, according to the report. Near the border with China, Kim’s regime has even tried to block cellphone signals coming from the country’s northern neighbor.
5. Mandated public praise and demonstrations of fealty.
One of the interesting details common to photographs from North Korea is a group of men in military uniforms surrounding Kim, pens hovering over notepads. The BBC reported on the significance of this a few years ago. They spoke with University of Sheffield professor James Grayson.
“These are pictures that will be broadcast on television and shown in the state media, so those who are there want to be seen recording Kim Jong Un’s every word. It’s about presenting him as having broad knowledge,” he told the BBC. “However, it’s ridiculous. He can’t possibly know about all of these different things. It’s important, however, that the apparatchiks that surround him are seen to be hanging on his every word.”
This is a minor, subtle way in which Kim’s leadership is reinforced. The most significant and ostentatious way, of course, are the massive parades and public demonstrations that have become internationally famous in recent years.
These demonstrations of loyalty aren’t mandated only among public officials and in huge public displays. Homes and offices also include, by mandate, framed photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. It’s also mandated that North Korean citizens wear lapel pins depicting the country’s leaders.
6. Control what’s publicly shown to ensure that only positive portrayals of you emerge.
It helps, of course, if you have a state-controlled news media that only offers flattering depictions of your leadership and events in the country. North Korea comes dead last on Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of press freedom around the world.
Houses include radios that play state broadcasts all day, every day. (According to the BBC, one radio network is hard-wired into homes to prevent propaganda from being picked up over the airwaves.) Television coverage is limited — the state channel is Korean Central Television — and outside media organizations are generally banned. There is Internet, but, as you might expect, it’s tightly controlled.
Coverage of North Korea from outside news agencies is also controlled. Visitors to the country are tended to by minders from the Korean government, who guide foreign media to certain predetermined interviews and photo shoots.
Put those six things together and the result is as you might expect: Foreign leaders will see only effusive praise for your regime — even from reports compiled by their own media outlets.
“I think he liked me, and I like him,” Trump said of Kim to Voice of America’s Greta Van Susteren in Singapore. “And I understand the past, and, you know, nobody has to tell me, he’s a rough guy. He has to be a rough guy or he has been a rough person. But we got along very well. He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country.”
“But he’s starved them. He’s been brutal to them. He still loves his people?” Van Susteren asked.
“Look,” Trump replied, “he’s doing what he’s seen done, if you look at it.”
That is true.