Global Experts

The World of North Korea's Kim Jong-un

In December 2011 the second generation leader of the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-il, reportedly died of a heart attack at age 70. His father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the dynasty, was a guerilla fighter who fought against the Japanese in China and later fled to Russia, where he became an officer in the Soviet army. Although he returned to the northern half of the Korean peninsula after the Japanese had surrendered to Soviet troops, he claimed credit for liberating Korea single-handedly, just as he falsely claimed to have defeated the UN coalition forces during the Korean War. This founding Kim set North Korea on the course that it now follows under the leadership of his grandson, who has consciously imitated his grandfather’s clothing, mannerisms, and “military-first” policy.

The Kim dynasty has successfully maintained a large measure of secrecy about how it operates. It is believed that for the last 20 years of Kim Il-sung’s reign, his son was running most of the country’s day-to-day affairs. When that son took over the leadership on his father’s death from a heart attack in 1994, he ruled in an even more secretive fashion than his father, sometimes not appearing in public for months on end. Throughout his lifetime, Kim Jong-il made only one public speech—of less than ten words—and that may have been due to a mistake made by a sound engineer. Now the world wants to know what is going on in the grandson’s mind as he publicly defies his erstwhile ally China and threatens destruction on South Korea, the United States, and Japan.

North Korea is in the news for two reasons: it has expanding nuclear weapons and missiles programs and it threatens to attack South Korea, the United States, and Japan. The nuclear program is hardly news. The Kim regime has been working since the 1980s on this program, and despite occasional denials of any desire to have nuclear weapons, it has forged ahead relentlessly, even during the days when it had reached a non-nuclear agreement with the United States. It is highly unlikely that the North Koreans were ever willing to completely abandon the program, no matter what incentives they were offered, and in recent years they have firmly renounced any interest in even discussing the program. In 2013 they officially stated that the program is their most important weapon and is not subject to negotiation. This should surprise no one, and it should also save other countries much time and effort that they would otherwise have put into trying to negotiate a new nuclear deal with North Korea.

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