Two weeks ago, North Korea shocked the world by conducting a third nuclear weapons test. Combined with the advancements in intercontinental ballistic missile technology and the threats against the US, this has put the world on high alert, drawing the UN Security Council into emergency session and prompting leaders throughout the world to make statements condemning any further nuclear activity.
But how much do we really know about what went into these tests, or about the government and military apparatus that fuels them? For all the fear North Korea instills in the international community through its nuclear advancements, the greatest fear it instills is through its increasing secrecy. Nicknamed the “Hermit Kingdom,” North Korea is one of the most isolated societies in the world, rigorously censoring any information to the outside world. It is also one of the most impoverished and starving countries in the world, subsisting on foreign aid in order to feed its decreasing population, prompting many to ask what they could gain from achieving a nuclear weapon.
This secrecy is personified in North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un. The youngest head of state in the world today, Kim Jong Un rose out of relative obscurity to assume power in December 2011 after the death of his father Kim Jong Il. In the year that he has been “The Great Successor” of North Korea, he has not made many allies in the international community. Yet for all his posturing, a look into the politics and presentation of the man portrays someone not attempting to perpetuate violence, but rather trying to end it. Through observation of both his speeches and the few images of him that have crossed the border into the outside world, it can be seen that Kim Jong Un is trying desperately to save his country from itself.
The mysteries surrounding Kim Jong Un begin with his birth. Although we can confirm that he was born between 1983 and ’84, we do not know the specific date or location of his birth. It is also well known that his mother was Ko Yong-hui, and is said to have been Kim Jong Il’s favourite female companion. However, it is not known whether Ko was officially married into the Kim dynasty, or whether she was a mistress. Young Kim was raised out of the limelight, in complete obscurity, with his father intentionally hiding him, along with his older two brothers and two sisters. As young Kim came of age, the stories surrounding his life became more distinct. It is known that he attended boarding school in Bern, Switzerland under an assumed name, and attended the Kim Il-Sung Military University afterwards. He began appearing at public events in 2010, although he was intentionally excluded from any affiliation with his father in public. This was predominantly because it was widely believed that one of his two older brothers would be elected to supreme leader. However, with the disowning of his oldest brother Kim Jong-Nam after a botched attempt to enter Japan to “go to Disneyland” and the shaming of his second brother Kim Jong-chul, Kim Jong Un was the only viable candidate able to inherit the position.
Kim Jong Un inherited from his father and grandfather a country mired with faults, both political and cultural. The greatest of these faults is the power of the military in the apparatus of the state. The military in North Korea has always held a central role, ever since its establishment by Kim Il-Sung in 1949. Being one of the largest standing armies in the world, the military is one of the most recognizable facets of North Korean culture, employing almost half of the country’s population and being responsible not only for law and order, but for many of the public works and infrastructure in the country. In order to maintain political dominance of North Korea, Kim must placate the military in almost every decision and speech he makes. In transcripts of his speeches, including his extraordinary address on New Years Day this year, he makes reference to the military in almost every paragraph. He even refers to his father Kim Jong Il as the “General,” demonstrating the importance for his public image and his political standing to appear militarized.
Besides the political struggles the young leader has to face, the culture of worship and propaganda surrounding his position make decision making increasingly difficult. North Korea’s political hierarchy is primarily focused on a cult of personality surrounding Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung. Kim Il-Sung is the man responsible for the establishment of North Korea as we know it today, creating the now central political ideology of “Juche”. His legacy is so overpowering in North Korean culture that, upon his death in 1994, he was entombed in a mausoleum named the “Kumsusan Palace of the Sun,” had over 500 statues throughout the capital erected in his honour, and was given the title of “Eternal President.” It is almost impossible for any leader to live up to such a predecessor. Indeed, Kim’s father Kim Jong Il spent almost his entire tenure attempting to placate and live up to his father’s legacy. Similarly, Kim Jong Un will have a hard time trying to get out of his grandfather’s shadow, if he would like to enact real reform and change in his country.
Despite these setbacks, Kim is not entirely a victim of his circumstances. In December of last year, news leaked out that over 31 high ranking military officers, including all four of the military leaders who accompanied Kim Jong Il’s hearse at his funeral, were demoted or removed from their positions, allowing Kim to replace them with military commanders more loyal to him. He has also made strides toward changing the rhetoric of the political party, focusing mostly on economic reform and peaceful reunification with the South rather than military might and tradition. Even his choice of wife, Ri Sol-ju shows a move towards the west with her more western-style garb, different from the more traditional garb worn by the wives of Kim Jong Il’s entourage. However, despite these changes, complete reform cannot happen immediately. Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons may be the one outlet he has to try to appease the military and get the West to stand back while he attempts to reform a society trapped under its own weight.