In Depth

Kim Jong Un: everything you need to know

The North Korean leader is causing confusion with his bizarre blend of diplomacy and tyranny

North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un has morphed from a reclusive tyrant into a world player over the past year, to the surprise - and bewilderment - of many.

The dictator remains a controversial figure across the globe thanks to a series of high-profile executions, the expansion of his nation’s prison camps network, and the continuation of an illegal weapons programme.

But his recent comments and meetings with former adversaries suggest there may be more depth to the young leader than first appeared.

So who is Kim Jong Un and what has shaped his leadership?

Early life

Kim is the son of Ko Young Hee, an opera singer, and Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea from 1994 until his death, in 2011.

Little is known in the West about the current North Korean leader’s upbringing, with anecdotal claims from defectors the only source of information. Even the date and location of his birth have been disputed.

Leadership

The young Kim found favour with his parents over his two older brothers. His father reportedly “saw in the youth a temperament similar to himself”, and began preparing him for succession to leadership in 2010, says Biography.com.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Kim “effected a friendlier public demeanour than his father had, drawing comparisons to his grandfather”, Kim Il Sung, before taking power.

“But hopes that the youngest Kim would forge a new direction for the country were soon dashed. He quickly moved to solidify his position, executing those who challenged his rule and demoting officials who had accrued influence under his father,” the website continues.

How is he different to his predecessors?

Kim Il Sung laid the groundwork for modern-day North Korea during his reign as the nation’s first supreme leader, from 1948 until his death in 1994, creating a hermit state built on a cult of personality surrounding its ruling family.

Despite widespread human rights abuses, North Korea experienced surprising prosperity, thanks largely to the expansion of heavy industry, though it never matched the economic growth rate of the South.

Upon his death, North Korea sunk into an intense economic depression and suffered a deadly famine that killed millions and destroyed the prospect of a competitive North Korean economy.

As a result, much of the relatively short reign of his son, Kim Jong Il, was characterised by attempts to paper over starvation. The country became increasingly reclusive during his tenure, expanding its cult of personality and limiting all contact with the outside world.

In 2002, North Korea began working on an illegal nuclear weapons programme, despite having signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1994. The move marked the start of a trend of nuclear development that frequently violates international agreements.

The reign of Kim Jong Un, however, has brought a mixture of diplomacy and brutality. More brash than his predecessors, he has expanded the country’s prison network, ramped up its illegal nuclear programme, executed politicians loyal to his father, had his half-brother assassinated in Malaysia, and provoked the international community by firing missiles over Japan.

Meanwhile, his diplomatic strategy has left many confounded. Kim has recently emerged as a powerful player, meeting with or due to meet leaders from China, Russia, Syria, South Korea and the US.

At a historic summit in April, he greeted South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the border of the two countries, and became the first North Korean leader to enter South Korean territory since 1953. 

The duo released a statement saying they strive for the full denuclearisation of the Korena Peninsula, and suggested working with the US and China to formally end the Korean War, since peace was never officially declared following the 1953 armistice.

In an article on The National Interest website, North Korea expert Ken Gause concludes that Kim has probably decided that the only way to ensure his nation’s success on the diplomatic front is “to force its way to the negotiating table from a position of strength”.

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