Ten years ago, leadership of North Korea passed to the third generation of the Kim family. But very little was known about the “Great Successor.” What kind of person was Kim Jong Un, how would he rule and would he be capable?
Now, a decade later, he has proved both sides wrong — showing that the regime was not bound to fall or change but rather to be remarkably resilient and consistent. Kim Jong Un has stayed within the confines of the framework established by his grandfather Kim Il Sung and inherited from his father Kim Jong Il. In the process, he has preserved state oppression, class divisions, purges, military adventurism, economic control and mandated glorification of the Kim family.
As North Korea specialists Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green and Robert Winstanley-Chesters note: “This is a country that would not be merely recognizable to Kim Il Sung but a country of which he might just as well still be in charge.”
To better understand Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, we have to rewind more than a half century to the country’s foundations. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, and the country remained under Japanese rule until the end of World War II. It was then divided, with the United States occupying the South and the Soviet Union the North. In 1948, a new government was formed in the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), under Kim Il Sung, who ruled until his death in 1994. Drawing on Stalinist tropes, Confucianism, Japanese imperialism and Korean nationalism, Kim Il Sung built a highly personalized regime that could be passed down to future generations of the Kim family.
The core philosophy was that North Korea, a distinct utopia, must rely on its own strength to power ahead under the guidance of a divine leader. Memories of defeat and colonization by Japan and the threat of U.S. interference from the Korean War (fought between 1950 and 1953, but technically ongoing) allowed the regime to instill a fear of “hostile” external forces, which helped build social cohesion and justify extreme controls. That philosophy was distilled down as Juche, or “self-reliance” — first mentioned by Kim Il Sung in 1955 — and further molded by his successors.
Kim Il Sung also understood the importance of having nuclear weapons to limit outside interference and compensate for the asymmetry of power between North Korea and its rivals. Then Foreign Minister Pak Seong Cheol outlined the regime’s thinking when he told the Soviet ambassador in 1962: “[U.S.] possession of nuclear weapons, and the lack thereof in our hands, objectively helps them, therefore, to eternalize their rule.” Without weapons of its own, North Korea would be at a disadvantage.
Struggling to maintain full control over a fledgling state, the elder Kim carried out extensive purges of opposition factions and potential enemies for much of the 1950s and beyond. Perpetuating a sense of fear and unpredictability cemented his family’s grip on power.
Another core element was the Songbun system, which divided people into groups — ranging from “special” to “hostile” — based mostly on the actions and status of their paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. The social classification system determined where people could work and live; Kim Il Sung’s regime classified over 3 million people as “hostile,” sending many to impoverished areas.
The regime also built legitimacy by constructing a mythology around Kim Il Sung, hyping up his anti-Japanese revolutionary exploits and his role during the Korean War. Despite some initial opposition, including Kim Il Sung’s own criticism of the practice, the building of a personality cult grew steadily, reaching its most fervent stage in the 1970s.
In 1974, Kim Jong Il was named as the heir apparent to Kim Il Sung, moving North Korea's political model further away from Communist orthodoxy toward a family dictatorship.
Soon after, Kim Jong Il’s mythology started taking shape, based (falsely) on him being born on the volcano Mount Paektu, considered a sacred revolutionary site. Despite him being groomed as a successor, predictions of the regime’s demise still gained traction after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. The Clinton administration was reported to have agreed to a faulty denuclearization deal with Pyongyang that year partly under the assumption that the regime would soon collapse.
But the regime survived a tumultuous period by conforming to past rituals, and leaning on the legacy of Kim Il Sung, who was declared “Eternal President” in 1998.
Kim Jong Il’s reign was marked with severe hardships such as a massive famine, collapse of Communist states around the world and a drastic cutback of subsidies from China and Russia. Overcoming tremendous odds, North Korea muddled through and even tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, which bolstered the Kim family’s legitimacy.
When son Kim Jong Un took over after his father’s death in 2011, commentators expected that change was inevitable, due to his age, inexperience and generational differences. Further, outside watchers argued that the world had changed drastically since the last transition in 1994, and North Korea would succumb to the progression of history. But Kim Jong Un, instead of embracing new ways to govern, returned to the playbook of his grandfather.
He has seen potential political rivals eliminated, including the purge and execution of his uncle Jang Song-Thaek in 2013 and the poisoning of his half brother Kim Jong-nam in 2017.
Although he is “determined to be seen as a ‘modern’ leader of a ‘modern North Korea,’" Kim Jong Un has retained the country’s rigid method of social classification, which Human Rights Watch has called the “pillar of North Korea’s ability to carry out rights abuses.”
The cult of personality remains as pervasive as before, with propaganda extolling the Kim family as divine and infallible. A vivid example came in 2016 when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun quoted American evangelist Billy Graham as comparing Kim Il Sung to God. “I admit that Premier Kim Il Sung is God who exists in the world of human beings … He, with his supreme political belief and method has created the greatest heaven on earth that even God might have not been able to do,” Graham reportedly said, although his spokesperson denied it.
Even as technology brings more external information into the country, corroding the regime’s control, Kim Jong Un doubled down on ideology and the cult of personality. Scenes of Kim Jong Un galloping across a snow-covered Mount Paektu astride a white steed in 2019 may have been ridiculed abroad but the images served as an important reminder inside the country of his predestined right to rule.
Even in the economic sector, which seemed to be one area where Kim Jong Un was prepared to break with his father and grandfather, he has harked back to centralized planning, mass mobilizations and a reassertion of the state in the economy. Barring a few experiments and repeated promises of prosperity, the regime has put forward no new economic vision. Even Kim Jong Un’s much-touted Byungjin policy — the simultaneous development of the economy and nuclear weapons — has its roots in policies advanced by Kim Il Sung in 1962.
Instead of seeking outside help or pursing economic liberalization to deal with the triple whammy of international sanctions, extreme weather and covid-19 border closures, the young Kim has put the focus back on Juche.
Although in some limited ways Kim Jong Un has deviated from the standard formula, such as by implementing nascent economic reforms early on in his rule and displaying a different public temperament from his father, ultimately he has shown a tendency to revert to old models and traditions. His personality quirks, such as his well-known love of freethinking American basketball star Dennis Rodman, were no sign of a progressive leader. For more than seven decades, the overarching goal of the Kims has been their survival, and it is no different under Kim Jong Un. In fact, in recent months he has cracked down on external information and marketization, two elements that pose an existential threat to the Kim family rule.
The reformation of North Korea would make a great story, but the regime’s survival depends on maintaining historical and ideological continuity. As a leader, Kim Jong Un has stuck to that path.