Of all the positions I held at Yongsan Base in the Republic of Korea from 2008-2011, the most interesting was the United States Forces Korea Joint Intelligence’s Indications and Warnings Officer. In the job, I was charged with monitoring and maintaining vigilance of unusual North Korean activity. While I was serving in this role, Kim Jong Il unexpectedly appointed his then 29 year-old third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir.
Behind the murky details of his Swiss education, his unlikely friendship with Dennis Rodman, and his reputation as “a Hollywood-obsessed playboy who grew up with the lavish excesses of a rock-star childhood,” Kim Jong Un is little more than an immature child. He may be the world’s youngest head of state and may have nuclear weapons at his fingertips, but based on his recent erratic decisions, Kim appears both overwhelmed and disoriented. His December 2013 expulsion of Jang Song Thaek and the ongoing purge of his circle of regents have not only destroyed the image of unity in his regime, but also unintentionally revealed to the world the dissension and instability within this state-run government. The question at hand, then, is why Kim Jong Un would weaken his stature by expurgating his biggest supporters. An increasingly likely explanation is that Kim may have become a puppet ruler and may have been forced by “invisible hands” to purge Jang and the regents. He simply may have had no say in the matter.
Kim Jong Un’s initial goals when he took over as the head of state were to sustain the Kim family regime and to protect the Juche philosophy, a self-reliance ideology developed by his grandfather Kim Il Sung. In pursuit of these objectives, he endeavors to maintain North Korea’s isolation, particularly from the West. Like his forefathers, he especially strives to fight off the so-called the evil imperialists—the United States. Constantly concerned over the security of his throne, Kim Jong Un continues the “Military First” posture that his father created. This policy prioritizes the armed forces when it comes to the allocation of resources, which consequently allows Kim, as his military’s benefactor, to remain in power. With absolute control over the military, Kim Jong Un and the upper echelon of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are safe from foreign and especially domestic threats; an outcome that Kim clearly feels is worth the resultant decline in economic conditions. The regime has only been able to maintain this course because of massive levels of foreign aid, the most significant source of which is China, North Korea’s “most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and fuel.” And the linchpin of the DPRK–Chinese partnership was Jang Song Thaek, who served as the country’s number two in command, and whom most considered to be Kim Jong Un’s mentor and biggest supporter.
Because of Jang Song Thaek’s expertise in economic reforms and his ties with Chinese policymakers, he had acted as a key intermediary between China and North Korea since the days of Kim Jong Il. Before his death, Jang was an advocate of a China-like reform aimed at reviving the dilapidated North Korean economy. On December 8, 2013, Kim Jong Un ordered Jang’s expulsion, publicly declaring the man – and perhaps implicitly, his views – to beyond the pale of acceptability. Jang was publicly expelled from the Worker’s Party, accused of having committed “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts” that included illicit affairs with women; harboring “politically-motivated ambition”; weakening “the party’s guidance over judicial, prosecution and people’s security bodies”; and obstructing “the nation’s economic affairs.” According to the Korean Central News Agency, five days later, the “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him,” was executed by a machine gun firing squad. The public purging of his uncle by marriage, who once served as his protector, shows Kim Jong Un is as ruthless, if not more so than forefathers.
Due to the country’s isolation from the rest of the world, the narrative that all is well within the Kim regime is typically conveyed to the North Korean people with relative ease. The population is secluded from any outside contact, except for when the two Koreas arrange meetings for families separated by the North and South division. Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter and popular internet search engines like Google or Yahoo do not exist in North Korea. In the isolated North, residents are forced to read or hear their news only from Rodong Shinmun (North Korea Workers’ Party newspaper) or the Communist Party controlled Korean Central News Agency. Seldom is this news unbiased or not filled with pro-Kim propaganda. However, we can speculate that even these largely unenlightened North Koreans could sense some urgency after the public execution of Jang Song Thaek. The disorder, insecurity, and vulnerability of the young leader’s regime made evident by the killing of his uncle would have been difficult to hide, even with the massive controls on information availability.
One might hypothesize that the purge of Jang and others reveals that, for the first time during his two-year tenure, Kim Jong Un feels that his position on the throne is threatened. Due to Kim Jong Il’s sudden death in late 2011, North Korea did not have sufficient time to promote and legitimize Kim Jong Un’s leadership. This may have caused Kim Jong Un to become overly suspicious of nearly all those who surround him, including his biggest supporters. These regents all swore eternal loyalty to the Kim family regime and were designated to protect the “Young Leader,” but, nearly all have now been eliminated. Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un seems to feel insecure in his position. The discomfort of not being able to trust anyone around him and the consequent paranoia might well be driving Kim to make questionable decisions. By way of illustration, out of the seven pallbearers who escorted his father’s body, Kim Jong Un has either executed or otherwise disposed of five of them. In sum, the frequent changes in military and party leadership since his father’s death, the execution of his uncle, and the ongoing purge make evident a degree of volatility in Kim’s emotions, a dramatic departure from the firmness demonstrated by his predecessors. His fundamental insecurity is worrying for the West and especially disturbing for South Korea, where fear of the unpredictable implications if Kim Jong Un were to snap are well founded, given his substantial missile arsenal and nuclear capability.
On the other hand, Kim Jong Un’s perplexing behavior also suggests a strong degree of arrogance and self-centeredness with respect to policy decisions, as Jang Song Thaek solely supported China-backed reforms to revitalize the already waning North Korean economy. A leading think tank in South Korea, Sejong Institute’s Cheong Seong-Chang contended that Kim has thus far “turned out to be more of a hard-liner and far more bellicose in external relations than his father.” Kim evidently refused to consider his uncle’s advice on reform, and he openly rejects opinions that differ from his – even if the person with whom he held conflicting views was an uncle charged with shepherding the youngest Kim through his early years on the throne. What is more, when Kim Jong Un ultimately unseated Jang, no one outside of Kim’s immediate circle knew whether Kim had personally ordered the public execution of his uncle and his uncle’s bloodline. But the DPRK persistently reminds its citizens and the world that its regime centers on Kim Jong Un and his absolute guidance; however, lately we have witnessed many instances that might suggest otherwise.
Hearsay is circulating that Kim’s new generals—those officials he installed after he killed his uncle and others he charged with disloyalty or treason—are the brains of the operations. Considering this, a possibility exists that Kim Jong Un is a puppet ruler, controlled by the elites in North Korea’s government, similarly to the case of the Japanese emperor in the 1800s.
Under this Japanese model, the shogun (or in the North Korean case, military generals) hold the real power and the emperor (or Kim Jong Un) serves only as the face of the regime. If that were true in North Korea today, the generals would still need Kim Jong Un because the majority of the public still reveres his grandfather, Kim Il Sung—the founder of Juche ideology and the DPRK. It could also mean that Kim Jong Un may not have wanted to purge all the regents his father left him. Kim Jong Un’s closest allies were likely the high-ranking generals and politicians who sincerely supported Kim Jong Il throughout his tenure as the Supreme Leader. These regents were also likely the same advocates who stood by a dying Kim Jong Il’s side, promising that they would support the “Young Leader” and maintain the existence of the Kim family regime. Yet, a majority of these have since been either executed or relieved of their duties.
Kim Jong Un is now surrounded by new faces, only few of whom have ties to his grandfather or his father. Kim may have originally wished to rely heavily on Jang Song Thaek for advice on his reign, along with those other regents designated by his father, but something led him to eliminate these closest confidants. One may conclude that Kim Jong Un might have lost political power, but, as a descendent of Kim Il Sung and anointed successor of Kim Jong Il, he is still of tremendous value to the generals. This scenario may seem impractical, but considering the current situation in the DPRK, it is certainly conceivable that there is a group of powerful figures who are controlling Kim because he has the legitimacy of his ancestry. In my professional experience watching the DPRK, I have learned that one must not rule out any possibilities regarding the Kim family regime or North Korea. When it comes to this isolated nation and its authoritarian heads of state, one must always be prepared for the unforeseen, because anything is possible.
Christopher Lee is an active duty Major in the U.S. Army. A graduate of West Point, he has served for eight years as an intelligence officer. He is currently a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region and a graduate student at Columbia University.
Photo credit: Zennie Abraham