Kim Jong-un's killing spree: what is he really afraid of?
As the death toll rises, so does Kim’s paranoia: our analyst's take on a ruthless young man, idolised by his mother
THERE has been no stopping Kim Jong-un. Not only has the 31-year-old North Korean leader executed his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, but now we hear that all Jang’s relatives have been killed as well in an act of breath-taking purification.
The new spate of killings is thought to be Kim’s attempt to wipe out any trace of his deceased uncle, a senior official who had been accused of plotting to overthrow the regime.
Guilt by association is a familiar political weapon in North Korea, used to control and wipe out subversion. But this is a bit close to home. What is Kim really afraid of?
Kim comes from a dynasty of idolised leaders, starting with his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and continuing with his father, Kim Jong-il. The cult of personality surrounding the leaders has been particularly powerful, surpassing that of Stalin’s and of Mao Zedong’s in its pervasiveness and intensity. Obedience is not the only requirement: devotion and having the right feelings must also be demonstrated.
Tipped off as his father’s heir-apparent, Kim Jong-un’s honorary titles before he came into power were ‘Great Successor’ and ‘Brilliant Comrade’. Since his actual succession as Supreme Leader following his father’s death in December 2011, his titles have steadily ratcheted up from ‘Dear Leader’ and ‘A Great Person Born in Heaven’ - both of which had also been used to describe his father and grandfather - to ‘The Shining Sun’. Kim’s propaganda machine is ensuring that he will outshine any rival, dead or alive.
In his omnipotent position, it is perhaps surprising that Kim appears to feel so threatened by potential takeover – or is it?
Seen to be more unpredictable and ruthless than either his father or grandfather, Kim’s answer so far to any hint of subversion has been extermination. His megalomaniac quest to purge the country of dissent and anything less than pure devotion suggests that Kim may well be persecuted by severe paranoia – a paranoia that characterises totalitarian systems.
Although there is little reliable information about Kim’s childhood, it seems that his opera singer mother, Ko Yong-hui, groomed him from an early age to become his father’s successor, in preference to his two older brothers. It appears he was idolised by his mother, as her golden hero who would one day replace his father.
Kim’s tyrannical behaviour and his demand for total and unquestioning loyalty reflect the insecurities of a highly narcissistic ego. The idolised baby is made to feel he can do no wrong, that he is superhuman, and that he must live up to his golden image. He cannot risk feeling vulnerable, weak or in need of other people.
He also cannot bear criticism of any kind as this threatens to shatter his illusion of being special along with the belief that he is unconditionally loved. For the reality is that the mother who idolises her child is not loving the actual child but rather her own idealised image of him. This means that being ordinary, and not special, for the idolised child is intolerable; it is a fate worse than death.
While his mother campaigned for Kim’s succession, his father is also said to have seen the makings of a future god in the young Kim. As the favoured son, how could Kim not expect utter devotion from his people? But there is a terrible psychological snag in this that seems to be increasingly evident in Kim’s behaviour.
Just over a year after Kim became Supreme Leader, North Korea threatened a “pre-emptive nuclear attack” against the US that included targeting the major cities of Washington and Los Angeles. Kim also declared his intention to “wipe out” Baengnyeong Island, the site of previous naval conflicts.
This muscle-flexing display of power could be seen as Kim’s way of asserting his supremacy, not only within his own country, but in relation to the United States. Was this Kim’s unconscious attack against not only his own father but the powerful father embodied by the US? In his idolised state of mind, Kim may have been encouraged to believe that he could surpass all men - i.e. his father and his brothers - and continue blissfully to be the sole love object of his mother, just as he now he demands to be first in his country’s love.
Purges are nothing new in North Korea; for decades they have been a regular means of dealing with enemies and opposing factions. Eleven months after assuming leadership, a South Korean government official observed that Kim replaced his father’s top brass with “officers who are loyal to him alone” in an effort to “erase all traces of his father’s rule”.
In the next two years, three defence ministers and four army chiefs of staff, along with five of the seven men who had escorted his father’s hearse had been purged.
Kim seems anxious to wipe out all the men around him who could possibly threaten his superiority. His uncle-in-law, Jang, is a case in point. Second in command and once considered a close ally of Kim’s, it is unclear whether the allegations against Jang were founded in reality or were manifestations of Kim’s paranoid fantasies.
Kim’s desire to totally replace and eradicate his father may well be at the root of his paranoia. This is what he imagines the men under him – and their offspring - will want to do to him. While Kim carries on trying to purge his external world of his enemies, nothing can purge his mind of his unconscious attacks against his father.
As the death toll rises, so does Kim’s paranoia – he is ironically creating the very hostility he most fears. This is why purging never quite works – it never lasts for long before the enemy, like the many-headed Hydra, raises its head and increases in strength.
North Korea’s famed impenetrability mirrors its Supreme Leader’s psychic impenetrability. Both man and country seem trapped in their respective narcissistic bubbles, threatened by depending on an outside world that can enrich them and at the same time expose their weaknesses. Kim will undoubtedly continue to struggle to keep his own and his country’s bubble well sealed and squeaky clean inside but the struggle, and the fallout, will only become more extreme.
The government-backed Workers’ Party welcomed Kim’s rise to power, declaring in an editorial at the time, “We vow with bleeding tears to call Kim Jong-un our supreme commander, our leader.” Did they expect such bloodshed and so many tears?
Coline Covington is a London-based Jungian analyst. 'Shrinking the News', a collection of her articles for The Week, was recently published by Karnac Books.