Third Supreme Leader
The title of “Supreme Leader” has been passed from father to son since the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, with Jong Un being the latest in the line of succession. Coincidentally, the 15th of April 2022 day was not only marked by the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong Un in power but also was the 110th birth anniversary of the first leader and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Song. This day is the greatest public holiday in North Korea and is also known as the “Day of The Sun”.
Kim was only 27 and the youngest leader North Korea has seen to date when he was thrust into the public eye in 2012 and suddenly promoted to a four-star general and vice chairman of the ruling party’s military commission after being deliberately kept out of the limelight for most of his life. The international community was engrossed by the new young ruler of this hermit kingdom which the outside world and even his own countrymen knew little about.
Kim Jong Un brought in a new era of North Korea that had never been seen before, he was more present in the public eye than his father had been. He gave public speeches, something Jong Il never did, and even did publicity photoshoots like foreign leaders. Now, ten years on – celebrations took place with dancing on the streets and a special assembly held in the hermit kingdom’s capital, Pyongyang.
His Love of Basketball
The young leader was met with praise for his strengthening of North Korea’s defence capabilities and meeting its aspirations of becoming a nuclear power, cementing it as a force to be reckoned with. A notable aspect of the young leader’s personality is his love of basketball. His favourite team is the Chicago Bulls and for his birthday in 2013, he invited Dennis Rodman (former all-star and member of the Chicago Bulls).
Rodman graciously accepted and made Jong Un’s dream come true by visiting North Korea and has not only been named an unofficial Peace Ambassador between the United States and North Korea but also that the mismatched pair have even forged an unlikely friendship.
Assassinations & the Byungjin Policy
Not all notable instances of his rule are whimsical like his fondness of fashion and basketball. During the early months of his rule, in order to cement his position as the new ruler, Kim got rid of any perceived threats such as his older brother (who was poisoned via a nerve agent in a shocking and public series of events at an Indonesian airport), along with his uncle and several senior party leaders using painful and horrifying methods of execution such as purported flamethrowers, anti-aircraft missiles and being blown up by a mortar.
The most important facet of his rule has been the Byungjin (parallel development) policy of simultaneous economic and military growth. Announced at a Central Party Committee’s Plenary Session on March 31, 2013, the Byungjin Line declaration designated nuclear development as the country’s primary initiative for securing defence and promoting economic development.
The Kim regime has described the Byungjin Line strategy as one that “reinforces and expands North Korea’s nuclear arsenal against the constant threat of nuclear attack and invasion, while also empowering the country’s efforts toward economic development.” The “Byungjin” policy of economy and nuclear weapons signified that North Korea would no longer differentiate its nuclear energy for peaceful use from military use.
Economic development is tied to the development of North Korea’s nuclear programme. The policy aims to reduce the financial burden of maintaining conventional weapons and strategies and to instead channel those freed financial resources back into its national economy.
Following this, he built the country’s most powerful nuclear weapons ever, introducing their newfound nuclear capabilities to the world via a series of four tests conducted between 2013 and 2017. North Korea now also boasts ballistic missiles capable of attacking the US which Jong Un leveraged to secure three meetings with Donald Trump in 2018, becoming the first North Korean leader in history to meet face-to-face with an American president.
The Byungjin Line aims to fulfil the dreams that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il worked to achieve. Through this policy, the North Korean regime claims to safeguard the dignity and autonomy of the North Korean people through self-reliance, military, and socialism. This policy of asymmetric development allowed the economy to grow significantly and in 2016, North Korea’s economic growth rate was estimated to be 3.9%, the highest since 2000.
Since then, North Korea has faced significant challenges mostly due to the economic sanctions levied against it by world powers such as Russia, China, and the United States due to the development of its nuclear programme. Such severe economic sanctions caused North Korea’s economy to contract by 3.5% in 2017 and 4.1% in 2018. Trade also fell 57% over two years, from $6.5 billion in 2016 to $2.8 billion in 2018.
Jong Un, in order to secure some economic relief for his country, attempted to make a deal to give up some of his country’s nuclear weapons at an inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom in April 2018 and the North Korea-US summit in Singapore in June 2018. These efforts ultimately failed and North Korea returned to its traditional socialist planned economic system and has been once again loudly promoting self-reliance, a slogan of Kim Il Sung.
Nuclear testing has also been resumed as of 2021 due to the various fires that have faced the international community in the face of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, causing North Korea’s nuclear programmed falling down the totem pole of priority.
Covid-19 & Food Shortages
In April 2021, during a speech to ten thousand members of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Jong-Un admitted that North Korea was in the most difficult situation in its history and is now on the edge of a cliff. The North Korean leader called on party activists to undertake another “arduous march” full of “work and sacrifice,” according to reports in North Korean state media.
The term arduous march is a reference to the crisis in North Korea in the early 1990s when up to 3 million people died in the country as a result of the famine. As the world grappled with the COVID pandemic facing economic crises and their health care systems struggled to cope, North Korea’s own response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to close its borders and completely shut itself off from the world in order to protect itself from the virus ravaging its way across the globe.
North Korea became the first state in the world to close its borders in response to Covid-19, doing so in January 2020. This also signals a lack of confidence in the health care infrastructure of the country in dealing with such a deadly virus.
The exact details of the situation in North Korea are unknown as the regime has remained tight-lipped on the issue, vehemently asserting that no coronavirus cases have been reported within its borders – containment measures have nonetheless devastated the already battered North Korean economy, worsening food shortages and precipitating a humanitarian crisis.
South Korea’s central bank estimates that the isolated country’s GDP shrank 4.5% last year, the biggest drop in more than 20 years, due to lockdown measures, sanctions, and harsh weather. Trade with China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, tumbled 80% in 2020. In July, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization forecast that North Korea could face a food shortage of about 860,000 metric tons this year.
Relations with China and the United States
As the world emerges from the pandemic after a stressful two years and a looming food shortage, Pyongyang has also expressed the desire to emerge from the hostile relations between North Korea and the United States. This may be one of the ways in which North Korea is able to secure some economic stability, that is, by having the sanctions lifted. At a plenary session of the Labor Party’s Central Committee in June 2021, Kim said that his country needs to be prepared not only for confrontation but also for dialogue with the United States.
The other major player on the international stage is China. China’s wish to uphold sanctions has waned as they seek to expand its influence in the region and North Korea seeks to relieve its economic tensions. It is even speculated that due to Jong Un’s waning health that he might not be able to stay in power much longer and as he has no clear successor, possibly plunging the country into political turmoil.
In the face of such a disastrous situation, North Korea may become a proxy state of the People’s Republic of China. Kim’s health is indeed a cause of concern for most spectators. In early 2020, he failed to make an appearance on the important occasion of the Day of the Sun and rumours began to spread that the leader had met his demise.
Kim Jong Un’s Failing Health
Analysts believe the greatest threat to the perceived enemies of North Korea is the ailing health of the Supreme Leader – if his unhealthy lifestyle were to catch up with him (he is a heavy smoker and has even been rumoured to have gout due to his unhealthy diet), the regime may collapse and the ruling Kim family line may meet its end. Jong Un has no clear successor as his own three children are too young and his sister, though rumoured by some to be poised to take the throne, is an unlikely successor due to her being a woman.
A female ruler is unthinkable in the rigid and deeply patriarchal North Korean government and society. Regardless of what the uncertain future may hold for North Korea and its ruling family, Kim Jong Un has managed to carve out a name for himself in the history of his nation and the world and emerged from the considerable shadow cast by his father.
10 years ago, some predicted Kim would be a mere blip in history – soon replaced and forgotten in the early days of his rule, ultimately leading to the collapse of the regime and the country, perhaps leading to a take-over by China. Today, he has managed to become one of the most recognizable faces on Earth – for better or for worse.
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