It has been a few years since the sudden death of the Sun of the Nation, Marshal Kim Jong-il which made his third son, Kim Jong-un, then in his late 20s, the supreme leader of North Korea.
Three years is the length of the traditional mourning period that Koreans are supposed to observe after the death of their father or sovereign. Thus, now is the time to make some observations about Kim’s North Korea. What has remained the same, and what has changed since December 2011?
The dawn of Kim’s rule was marked by intense purges of his father’s top dignitaries. In December 2011, during his father’s funeral, Kim walked next to his father’s hearse in the company of three top generals and four top civilian officials. Three years on, none of these people have their jobs: At least one of them was executed, while all but one have disappeared without a trace.
Kim’s decision to arrest and execute Chang Song-taek, his aunt’s husband, long the “grey eminence” of Pyongyang politics, was a dramatic signal to the elite. The sorry fate of Chang was meant to show that nobody is immune from the wrath of the supreme leader.
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These purges were obviously necessary to start changing the country, since Kim’s policies will be very different from those of his father and grandfather.
So far, the most important changes can be seen in the field of economic management. From late 2012, the North Korean government began to implement reforms which are remarkably similar to what China did in the early days of Deng Xiaoping, around 1980. Farmers, who were hitherto government employees with a fixed salary, are now given a certain percentage of the harvest, and have predictably started to feel motivated. As a result, the food situation has improved markedly.
In industry, a slow-motion switch from a Leninist, centrally planned economy to markets has been initiated as well. The unofficial private economy, far more advanced in North Korea than most imagine, is now quietly encouraged.
There is no sign of relaxation in the political sphere, however. Kim has launched a massive crackdown on illegal border movements, effectively closing North Korea’s border with China – which had remained porous for decades. He has also done much to root out the penchant that many North Koreans have recently developed for smuggled foreign TV shows, especially South Korean soap operas and films. Such concerns are not merely motivated by paranoia, regardless of what the international media says. The supreme leader knows that his position is precarious, and that tightening the screws of social control and surveillance may help him prolong his rule.
North Korea under Kim remains as stubborn in its nuclear ambitions as it was under his father. Having seen the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the popular rebellion against Libya’s Gaddafi that was indirectly assisted by western might, North Korean decision-makers have every reason to want to continue to advance their nuclear weapons potential.
A shift to Russia?
At the same time, there has also been a truly unprecedented crisis in Sino-North Korean relations. In the last years of Kim Jong-il, China was North Korea’s major sponsor and trade partner. Now things are different. The Chinese and North Korean media (strictly controlled by the government in both countries) have exchanged thinly veiled verbal attacks, while the Chinese government has frozen all Beijing-sponsored infrastructure projects in North Korea – including, for example, a new bridge over the Yalu River.
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The North Korean government under Kim has shown hitherto unprecedented interest in foreign investment, as long as this investment comes from sources other than China. At present, the young marshal has pinned his hopes on Russia – currently itself on a collision course with the West. North Korean leaders obviously believe that Russia under Vladimir Putin will behave like the Soviet Union once did and shower North Korea with aid grants as a reward for Pyongyang’s militant anti-Americanism. Such hopes are misplaced, but it will take some time before Pyongyang’s decision-makers realise the sad truth.
There is little doubt that Kim wants to be popular and loved by his people, and perhaps sincerely cares about the wellbeing of the North Korean populace, though he might have rather eccentric ideas on what constitutes such wellbeing. Under his watch, the North Korean government has spent a significant part of its meagre resources on building all kinds of entertainment facilities, including an elite ski resort, a number of water parks and even a dolphinarium.
Kim’s North Korea is increasingly a place quite different from the North Korea of his father. It is moving towards a more efficient economy, but also towards more internal repression. It is more prone to erratic changes in domestic policy and more eccentric in many regards. But, of course, for the foreseeable future it is going to remain a nuclear and authoritarian regime, run by the Kim family and a small hereditary elite: This is not negotiable, irrespectively of what the outside world thinks and does.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.