2016 is approaching its end, leaving North Korean historians a lot to write about. While celebrating the Dear Leader on the anniversary of his death, on December 17, 2011, Kim Jong Un may look at his first five years in power and give a sigh of relief for having been able to successfully overcome the second succession in the history of the country and become its undisputed ruler.
The two major political events of this year : the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), from May 6 to 9, and the fourth session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), on June 29 – together with two nuclear tests (on January 6 and September 9) and multiple missile tests, have represented the “closing of the circle” of the consolidation of the young leader’s internal legitimacy and the completion of the overhaul of Kim Jong Il’s government legacy.
SHUFFLING THE DECK
During the WPK Congress, Kim Jong Un announced a five-year plan to develop the economy, as well as a number of organizational changes aimed at making WKP ruling practices more functional and his desire to “open a new era of party-centered state management.”
The State Affairs Commission (SAC) was instead established as the new supreme organ by the SPA through the amendment of two sections of the DPRK’s Constitution, which created the position of Chairman of the SAC for Kim Jong Un and replaced the National Defense Commission – the supreme organ in the Kim Jong Il era – with the SAC.
This means that the young leader is in the highest position in all areas of power in North Korea and has strengthened his grip on each sector of state affairs, appointing officials with proven loyalty to him to the commission’s highest positions.
As Michael Madden confirms : “rather than fully sweeping out the top leadership, the SAC and Kim Jong Un ended military dominance by introducing more officials from elsewhere.”
In order to guarantee the stability and the survival of the Kim regime, the military cannot be alienated, but a balance of power between all actors must be preserved.
On the other hand, each North Korean leader has created his loyalty base and Kim Jong Un has chosen the party. The WPK control is increased by the fact that all SAC members are also members of the WPK Political Bureau, the WPK Executive Policy Bureau, or the Central Military Commission.
When he took the public stage for the first time in 2010, next to his father Kim Jong Il and a military elite at the parade for the 65th anniversary of the constitution of the WPK, not many international observers would have bet on him. Kim Jong Un, the Swiss-educated youngest son of his father, was only officially designated as heir in 2009 by Kim Jong Il, who was in poor health.
At that time, Jong Un was inexperienced in managing political and military affairs and unknown to North Koreans. Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, had been trained for more than twenty years by his father and he was already a prominent figure in the country’s political system by 1994.
For these reasons, expectations and wonderings about the instability of the regime were expressed by international observers in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death. However, those expectations have not materialized.
MIMICKING HIS GRANDFATHER
Since his first year in office, it’s been clear that Kim Jong Un will not be following his father’s footprints in the management of the North Korean affairs. Instead, the young leader has chosen to emulate his grandfather’s leadership style in order to build up his own “charisma.”
Evidence of that can be found in the resumption of Kim Il Sung’s tradition to broadcast a “New Year Speech” on state television as well as being in a closer physical contact with his subjects. Moreover, as during his grandfather’s era, Kim Jong Un has chosen to bring back the Party as the backbone of state governance and to emphasize economic revitalization.
Soon after his succession process officially concluded in 2012, the young leader dismissed the elder “guardians” chosen by his father to help him during the transition period, while launching a generational shift of the personnel in each branch of the North Korean system.
In so doing, Kim Jong Un has sought to establish his authority by untying it from constituency groups that had gained an upper hand during his father’s era. In this regard, the ouster of the former Chief of General Staff Ri Yong Ho, on July 2012, and of Jong Un’s primary protector Jang Song Thaek – who was charged of “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts” – on December 2013, represented the two major adjustments in the power configuration of post-Kim Jong Il North Korea.
By purging Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un erased any foreign political influence from the domestic affairs of the country. What concerned the young leader the most, indeed, was a different view about North Korea’s foreign policy and his uncle’s close ties with China. Since then, the process of political reshuffle further accelerated with the purging, resigning and execution of mid and high-ranking party and military officials.
Besides the personnel changes and the redefinition of senior party leadership positions, the central pillar of the Kim Jong Un’s reign has been the parallel development of the economy and the nuclear program, a policy called Byungjin, announced at the WPK Central Committee Plenum on March 31, 2013, aimed at ending the Songun (military-first politics) era.
Since Kim Jong Un ascended to power, he announced the priority of building a “strong and prosperous great nation” and “improving the people’s living standards” through the economic development of North Korea, at least apparently, as his grandfather Kim Il Sung did.
Instead of implementing systemic reforms and opening up the economy, the pragmatic Kim Jong Un, aware of the growing middle class, has stressed the need to build a knowledge-based economy. On the other hand, the regime has “adopted a policy of benevolent neglect,” tolerating market and private business economic activities.
Economic development increasingly constitutes a cornerstone of Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy. However, resolving the dependence on imported sources of energy and of generating foreign hard currency to sustain the economy, are all the more acute given that North Korea is under a tough sanctions regime with the implementation of the latest UN Security Council sanctions.
GROWTH IS LIMITED
Beyond the propagandistic tones of putting the North Korea people first, sanctions and international isolation have deprived North Korea of economic resources necessary to continue to guarantee privileges to both military and political elites ; actions are required in order to secure resources for governance.
Science and technology also are crucial for the further advancement of the nuclear program of the country, the other component of the Byungjin line. Such development has been enhanced, as the unprecedented pace of nuclear and missile tests during the last five years shows.
Moreover, Kim Jong Un has institutionalized North Korea’s nuclear status by revising the Constitution of the country, adopting new laws and creating new government organizations with the task of improving the nuclear weapon program.
This program is intimately related to the regime’s domestic core interests and the leader’s perceptions about both internal and external threats.
The country’s nuclear capabilities guarantee the political survival of the Kim family rule and the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession ; preserve the independence of the country and facilitate national development by not only keeping external enemies at bay but also delivering internal resources for civilian economy and consumptions.
After five years in power, the young leader has been able to consolidate his internal legitimacy and secure his position through the restructuring of the North Korean political system and the implementation of Byungjin line. In this system not only has the party reaffirmed the role of main political actor but also it is linked to the other actors in a way that discourages any competition between party, military and government elites, and makes Kim the undisputed Suryong of North Korea.