Execution shows it's no more Mr Nice Guy for North Korea's Kim Jong-un

Execution of uncle shows ruthlessness of young North Korean leader trying to cement his power

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 7:28am

Kim Jong-un, who marks his second year in power in Pyongyang this week, has shown himself to be more politically gifted than his father, as well as more risk tolerant and more reformist. But for each of these attributes there is a significant caveat: the recent execution of his uncle suggests both ruthlessness and paranoia.

The "Young Marshal" has displayed a greater affinity for public politics than his rarely spotted father, Kim Jong-il.

The son "is more charismatic, more photogenic, a natural politician. He looks like a likeable guy", says Dan Pinkston, deputy project director for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "He will stand up and take phones and talk to people. He looks natural in playing a role that his father did not."

During his first major public appearance, the son was in a sombre mood at his father's stage-managed funeral. Since then the plump 30-year-old has been filmed often: being fawned on by female soldiers, giving guidance to a new airport's designers, posing for photos with star-struck citizens. He has also delivered public speeches. His father made just one public utterance, at a parade, squeaking: "Long live the glorious North Korean People's Army!"

The son's look - his well-padded physique, big grin and side-wall haircut - seems designed to harken back to a time before North Korea's economic headaches and widespread malnutrition, to the era of his grandfather, state-founder Kim Il-sung.

But the Mr Nice Guy image was savaged last week following the unprecedented public purge and swift execution of his uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek, formerly the No 2 man in the regime.

In Seoul, even experienced North Korean watchers, accustomed to the tactics of the dictatorship, were shocked.

"I had assumed Jang would remain alive: He's a member of the 'royal family,'" says Oh Se-hyuk, a North Korean defector now in Seoul. "This is very unusual. I think Kim aimed to give people fear."

Indeed, inculcations of fear and uncertainty have been features of Kim's rule.

Like his father, the younger Kim hasn't hesitated to use brinksmanship. Earlier this year, he unleashed a "war of words" against South Korea and the United States that shocked even seasoned Korea watchers with its v itriol. Kim also temporarily shut down the bellwether inter-Korea industrial park at Kaesong, something his father had never done even during the periods of great peninsular tensions.

These moves caused some pundits to worry that the new leader was out of control, particularly as the actions produced no apparent international concessions or diplomatic gains. Analysts now suggest that tensions were raised for local reasons - to focus the state's populace on an external threat rather than domestic conditions.

Alternatively, Kim might have been flexing his muscles to please his generals. "This showed he was a real commander-in-chief," says Choi Jin-wook, chief North Korea researcher at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification (Kinu).

Meanwhile, Kim's successful long-range missile test - and his decision to mention nuclear weapons possession in the constitution - may have been designed to appease his powerful military.

Even so, the risks have been calibrated. Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim has not killed any South Koreans; he has not launched a war, a commando raid, a terrorist bombing, a naval attack or an artillery strike.

While he has continued his father's s ongeun (military first) policy, Kim has also emphasised economic growth. He has promised his people that they will no longer need to "tighten their belts". Although North Korea does not publish economic statistics, external analysts believe the country has seen GDP growth since Kim took power. China trade is increasing, and 14 free economic zones are being established nationwide.

Pyongyang, in defiance of its dire reputation, surprises many visitors pleasantly.

"What surprises people, I think, is the relative prosperity of Pyongyang," says Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours in Beijing, which has been taking Western tourists into North Korea for two decades. "It is not quite Dubai, but lots of buildings are quite tall and shiny and normal looking. It is not what people expect."

Electronic commerce is now widespread, with many Pyongyangites using debit cards. There are believed to be more than two million cellphones now in use. While some observers see this development as a potential way to foster freedom of information, the number of users represents less than 10 per cent of the population, the elite with the closest ties to the regime.

Cockerell also notes that blackouts are not as common as they once were, suggesting an improved power supply.

Taxis clot the streets, filled with customers, and the city occasionally endures traffic jams. Five years ago, Pyongyang was perhaps the only East Asian capital free of this prosperity side effect. And there are a more places to visit in those taxis. There are bars in every neighbourhood and even a few pizza restaurants.

"The code for 'middle class' is those who can buy things that are not absolute necessities," Cockerell says. "Either the number of such people has been growing or their access to goods has been, and slightly ostentatious consumption is becoming more of a thing - in Pyongyang, at least."

But the new special economic zones and China trade were driven mostly by the executed Jang, nicknamed "the richest man in North Korea".

Since the devastating famines of the 1990s, when the socialist state-distribution system crumbled, Pyongyang has maintained tight political control, even as it has lost its grip on the economy, including its currency.

Cockerell says that there are various currencies used in North Korea - the euro, dollar and yuan as well as the official won - prompting shops to dole out gifts such as gum and bottled water to customers in lieu of change in the appropriate currency.

Beyond Pyongyang, the regime has lost much control of the national economy. Consumer markets are everywhere, defying attempts in 2005, 2006 and 2009 to rein them in. Oh, the defector who maintains telephone contacts in North Korea, estimates that a staggering 90 per cent of citizens visit markets every day to meet their needs.

In 2009, the state conducted a woefully mismanaged currency revaluation, which deprived millions of North Koreans of their savings - hardly a strategy to win over the populace. The same year, North Korea dropped communism from its constitution.

Low-level cross-border trade with China thrives and the authorities have apparently stopped arresting those caught with American CDs and DVDs, so widespread are those products.

The result of all this semi-legal trade is massive corruption, as local officials, border guards and military officers - reliant on dwindling government salaries - are compelled to find additional sources of income and take their cut. Indeed, some officers and officials have become de facto employees of the new class of entrepreneurs.

Park So-keel of Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that assists defectors, says that North Korea is now the most corrupt country on earth.

As his state reels from corruption and international sanctions, it is hardly surprising that Kim is paranoid. There may be a simpler reason for his uncle's execution, though: the ossified state system of North Korea.

"What it boils down to is an authoritarian power grab by Kim and forces allied closely with him," says Chris Green, international manager of Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news source with contacts inside North Korea.

"This has been predictable ever since Kim came to power, with Jang as one of his guardians in late 2011, since it is an essential feature of the North Korean power structure that only one person can be in charge."

The killing does not suggest instability. If anything, Kim's brutal removal of Jang signals that the son has now assumed full power and is cementing his own team. Over the last two years he has replaced generals and officials with handpicked men, most of whom are closer to his age. In Korean culture there is a strong deference to age, and Kim, at age 30, may have been uncomfortable dealing with Jang, who was 67.

"His people tend to be rising people in the military and the party, a younger generation," Pinkston says. "I think this is the new guard. The critical mass has shifted."

Even so, the long-term challenges Kim faces would be enough to turn any dictator's hair white.

"By allowing markets, they are compromising and taking a risk as the markets get stronger and stronger, and the regime gets weaker and weaker," says Choi of Kinu. "So they look more prosperous, but I don't think this means that the North Korean state is getting stronger."

Meanwhile, ordinary North Koreans below the privileged elite may have lost all trust in Kim's leadership. Among the peasantry, the paternal socialist state of yore has gone.

"The North Korean government does not take care of its people," Oh says. "And people never see good results from government policy."

All this means that Kim Jong-un faces, unlike most leaders, a real existential threat. On the one hand, he could expect to rule for another 30 or 40 years. He is personally well protected, guarded by the Bongwhajo, his extensive security detail. And he presides over the world's most opaque government.

On the other hand, he is sailing a leaky ship that lacks the armour it once employed.

"There is a politically connected, ascendant class cut from the middle ranks of society, rather than the very top," says Green.

"They are making money independent of the whim of the government, and money is a way for the moderately connected to punch above their political weight. Kim won't be unaware that it was that moderately connected, educated and ambitious middle tranche of society that brought down the Soviet Union."