The many faces of Chairman Kim Jong Un

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At the recent December 2019 plenum, Chairman Kim, rather than giving his traditional New Year’s speech, outlined a different strategy toward the US … a return to a combination of military and economic development, and the requirement for the people to tighten their belts during a period of prolonged sanctions. Kim’s strategic shift … offers clues as to his evolving leadership style, intentions and flexibility as he begins his ninth year in power.

The most tempting explanation would be that Kim has returned to his earlier byungjin policy, combining an emphasis on both economic as well as military development. … And observers might thereby be forgiven for assuming that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that Kim is a mere replica of his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung. But such thinking risks missing the nuances of Kim’s leadership style, and how he continues to evolve and mature as a strategic leader.

Kim shares his grandfather’s and father’s ruthlessness, legacy of human rights abuses, single-minded obsession with power and self-preservation, cult of personality and fierce devotion to the ideals of one-party rule, juche (self-sufficiency) and national pride. … He has shown a side similar to his grandfather in his famous onsite inspection visits—jovially hugging employees, smiling, back-slapping and posing for selfies. In this sense, both he and his grandfather are different from Kim Jong Il, who rarely spoke publicly and only traveled to Russia and China.

Kim’s differences from his father and grandfather are a measure of his youth, diplomatic talent, style, trust in his wife and his sister (both of whom have traveled internationally with him) and ability to think and act more strategically, rather than impulsively.

His impatience may be a function of external political pressures (particularly from the military) rather than a mere reflection of his personality. Certainly, after his 2019 New Year’s speech … Kim has shown restraint and patience. He has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or resumed nuclear testing—nor is he likely to do so, although a public “display” of a new ICBM or ballistic missile submarine is not out of the question.

Kim remains an aspirational leader, even as the DPRK’s diplomacy is likely to shift—given the replacement of Ri Yong Ho and appointment of Ri Son Gwon (a military hardliner and protégé of Kim Yong Chol) as foreign minister—to a more muscular, hard-nosed version. And Kim, rather than acting impulsively to provoke an unpredictable President Trump, has surely taken measure of America’s current impeachment drama, the upcoming American presidential election, and Trump’s recent show of resolve with respect to the killing of Iran’s Quds Force leader General Soleimani, as well as the signing of the China trade deal. Kim is patiently waiting—with a tendency to avoid unnecessary political risks—knowing that, if Trump were to serve another four years, time is on his and the DPRK’s side.

[Excerpts of 38 North commentary]

This entry was posted in , , , by Grant Montgomery.

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