27-year-old Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il, took over the Hermit Kingdom in December 2011 after Kim’s sudden death. The North Korea watchers had less hope for him to succeed. Ten years later, Kim’s grip on power is unquestionable despite a host of challenges, such as its moribund economy and a vast web of sanctions led by the U.N. and the U.S. against his regime.
Rise to the Power
Kim was formally installed as the North Korean leader on Dec. 30, 2011. Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) announced Kim’s supreme commandership of the Korean People’s Army, merely 13 days after the death of Kim Jong-il.
In April 2012, the WPK named Kim as the party’s secretary. The grooming of the crown prince as the North’s next leader began years earlier, but Kim appeared to lack the political experience and the team critical for a smooth power transition.
Kim Jong-il was prepared for two decades to take over power from his father and founder, Kim Il-sung, in 1994.
The first move by Kim was to bring back the party system to keep the military, which had developed immense power under his father’s military-first policy, in check and give authority to his own decision-making structure.
In 2016, the four-day party congress, the first of its kind in 36 years, and announced the byungjin policy. The policy involved the twin objective of the development of nuclear weapons and economic prowess.
In January another party congress was held and Kim was endorsed as the general secretary. His father had held the title before him.
Kim showed no hesitation in eliminating those who hindered his absolute authority. Kim, in 2013, executed his once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek on treason charges. It is believed, Jang virtually ruled North Korea as Kim’s father lay in his death bed. Jang was one of the key advisers to Kim before his execution.
In 2017, Kim Jong-nam, Kim’s estranged half brother, died of poisoning in Kuala Lumpur airport. It was termed as an assassination and was blamed on North Korea.
Kim used the state media to display his devotion to ordinary North Koreans and tried to portray the North as a normal state. The media showed Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju as public figures.
Kim held parlays with the then U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in thrice in 2018. At the same time, Kim has not budged on the nuclear talks and inter-Korean exchanges. Under Kim, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and nuclear delivery systems which the country perceives is necessary for its minimum deterrence.
Today Kim no longer needs the legacy of his illustrious predecessors Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to legitimize his leadership. Kim revised the constitution in 2019 eliminating all phrases related to his father’s military-first policy. The portraits of the former leaders are no more seen from the backdrop of official meetings. The country is internally using the term Kimjongunism, the new ideology in the country promoted by Kim Jong-un, as per the South Korean National Intelligence Service’s report to the parliament.
Kim is now faced with the task of reviving the North Korean economy struggling sanctions, COVID-19 lockdown and poor weather conditions. Kim’s economic development continues to depend solely on self-reliance and trade with China, the impoverished country’s economic lifeline. North Korea doesn’t see what it can gain out of the negotiations with the United States.