Skip to main content

Kim Jong-Un: A 'pragmatic' leader determined to remain in power

KCNA VIA KNS, AFP | This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 18, 2018 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un speaking while attending a meeting of the 7th Central Military Commission.
5 min

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's intentions ahead of a June 12 meeting with US President Donald Trump may seem opaque. But some experts say Kim's actions to remain in power are rational and pragmatic.


As soon as North Korea’s "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was proclaimed the "Great Successor". That same month he was given official positions as head of state, the party and the military.

Since then the younger Kim has shown himself to be “a rational and pragmatic leader who aims at regime survival”, said Antoine Bondaz, a North Korea specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Kim Jong-un was reportedly designated his father’s heir as early as January 2009. He underwent a period of preparation for his future role as the country’s leader and a major effort was launched to establish Kim’s primacy by giving him more power over North Korea’s military. He joined North Korea’s National Defence Commission (NDC) in April 2009. In September 2010, he was made a four-star general and vice-chairman of both the Central Military Commission and the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

“North Korea is, in a large sense, a military state,” explained Owen Miller, Chair of the Centre of Korean Studies at SOAS in London.

“No one can rule the country without being in control of the military,” he said.

Cementing his leadership

“Getting rid of any potential counterweights” was another means by which Kim secured his leadership, Bondaz noted.

Notably, a 2011 purge executed or imprisoned around 200 protégés of Jong-un’s uncles-in-law Jang Song-thaek and O Kuk-ryol – both military generals and vice-chairmen of the NDC, and both considered potential rivals. Jang was killed by firing squad in 2013.

After gaining control over the military and removing threats to his leadership, Kim then sought to “increase his legitimacy”, in part by building up the country's nuclear forces, according to Bondaz.

Indeed, Kim has significantly accelerated the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Four bomb tests have been conducted under Kim Jong-un whereas there were only two over the course of his father’s 17 years in power. Likewise, there have been more than 80 missile tests under the younger Kim compared to 16 under his father. 

This acceleration seems to have borne fruit: the most recent missile to be tested, the Hwasong-15 fired in November 2017, appears to be able to strike targets as distant as New York and Washington, DC.

‘They had to do something’

The development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has enhanced Kim’s standing because it is seen as a way of ensuring the dynastic regime’s survival.

“You have to look back to the [1950-1953] Korean War in which North Korea was almost obliterated by US bombing,” Miller explained. “Then to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, which got rid of the security umbrella. North Korea was effectively left on its own, and the country’s ruling elite realised they had to do something to protect themselves and strengthen the regime’s legitimacy.”

“George W. Bush’s eight years in power [2001 to 2009] reinforced everything,” Miller continued. “The US became very overt about its regime change ambitions. The 2011 deposal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi following a US-backed intervention – after he eliminated his regime’s nuclear weapons programme in 2003 – reinforced the same message: If you don’t maintain an extremely strong defensive posture towards the US, sooner or later you will be overwhelmed by regime change.”

Indeed, an ill-timed comment by National Security Adviser John Bolton in April noting that the US was considering “the Libya model” for dealing with Pyongyang almost scuttled any possibility of talks.

Kim ‘has gone as far as he can’

The North Korean leader’s plans to keep his regime in power are not just a matter of bombs and missiles. He is “relying on building nuclear forces and the economy simultaneously”, Bondaz observed.

With China and Vietnam providing examples of communist governments that have liberalised their countries’ economies while maintaining their grip on power, Kim has pursued some limited economic reforms after succeeding his father.

They seem to have had some success: In 2016, North Korea’s economy grew at its fastest rate since 1999 despite the introduction and ratcheting up of sanctions in the intervening period.

“But Kim probably recognises that he has gone as far as he can with his current approach,” said Miller. “He wants economic prosperity and he wants the lifting of sanctions. So now he is trying to achieve his aims in a different way.”

Peace deal ‘unlikely’

This might explain Kim’s apparent bid for better relations with Washington and Seoul. But at Tuesday’s much-anticipated meeting with Trump and any subsequent summits, will the North Korean leader succeed in getting a lasting deal?

“North Korea seems pretty serious about denuclearisation, a peace guarantee and the permanent stabilisation of the peninsula,” Miller said.

“But it is unlikely that that will happen,” he continued. “Look at Iran. That provides good counter-evidence: The US got an agreement, then backed out of it.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Page not found

The content you requested does not exist or is not available anymore.