North Korea dictator transformed – Kim suddenly thin – politics abroad

When Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea ten years ago, he was considered a blank slate. It is no longer that – on the contrary.

Kim is now working on a new 10-year plan. The important plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Labor Party has just started in the capital Pyongyang. The rulers of North Korea presented themselves much thinner than just a few months ago – but they still keep their agenda a secret. The world is looking forward to Pyongyang …

Photo: Uncredited/dpa

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2011: Kim Jong-un (front left) salutes next to the hearse with the remains of his deceased father and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during a funeral procession in PyongyangPhoto: Uncredited/dpa

The fact is: Even after ten years in power, the dictator from Pyongyang is difficult to grasp as a person and statesman abroad.

In his own propaganda staging, the ruler likes to be affable and close to the people, but in fact Kim is considered an ice-cold despot of a state whose control and reprisals extend into all areas of life of the citizens.

Despite severe international sanctions that have been hampering the economic development of his country for years, Kim is sticking to the nuclear weapons program.

Kim Jong-u’s father, Kim Jong-il, died on December 17, 2011 as a result of a heart attack. With that his son actually took over the state affairs. However, it was only after a 13-day mourning period that he was officially proclaimed “Supreme Leader of our Party, the Military and the People” on December 29th. He was given the same dictatorial powers as his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung.

Hier war Kim noch der DICKtator - ein Foto aus dem Jahr 2017Photo: dpa

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Here Kim was still the DICKtator – a photo from 2017Photo: dpa

Kim’s road to power

What followed is described by observers as a phase of consolidation of power. Kim achieved this through political cleansing, to which numerous high-ranking officials including his uncle Jang Song Thaek fell victim.

When Kim took power in the totalitarian state, he was not even 30 years old. The neighboring countries worried at the time that a phase of instability could follow in the Stalinist-ruled North Korea. Kim Jong-un was largely unknown even in neighboring South Korea, and his political goals were unclear.

At home he was described by the inexhaustible state propaganda machine shortly after the seizure of power as the “genius of geniuses” – with that he should be above all doubt among his compatriots.

North Korea marked the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death by appealing to the population and soldiers to remain completely loyal to their son.

Kim wirkte zuletzt schlanker als früherPhoto: KCNA via KNS / dpa

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Kim recently looked slimmer than beforePhoto: KCNA via KNS / dpa

“The main burden must be borne by the population”

But at the moment Kim, who recently appeared slimmer, is seen in a particularly critical phase of rule. In addition to the sanctions, North Korea was also hit hard by the consequences of the corona pandemic.

The already isolated country had closed its borders early on because of the pandemic, which had a strong impact on trade with China. Kim was unable to meet his economic goals. This could undermine his authority, so observers believe.

South Korean MP Ji Seong Ho, who fled North Korea, says prices have risen in the domestic market. “The main burden must be borne by the population.” In any case, the “opposition” to Kim among young North Koreans is greater today than it was in Kim Jong-il’s time Ji.

Kim Jong Un (M.) spricht zu Militärführern bei einer Ausstellung nordkoreanischer InterkontinentalraketenPhoto: /AP

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Kim Jong-un (center) speaks to military leaders at an exhibition of North Korean ICBMsPhoto: /AP

► In all of his actions, the country’s nuclear weapons played an important role in Kim’s development of power from the start. Kim’s father had a rather “ambiguous stance” with regard to the nuclear program, says the former South Korean nuclear negotiator Lee Do Hoon. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, “immediately after taking power, steered the course towards active nuclear development”.

► Four of the six nuclear tests carried out by North Korea so far have been carried out under Kim Jong-un, the largest so far and the last in September 2017. He also promoted the development of ballistic missiles, which, depending on their design, can also carry nuclear warheads.

Nordkoreaner an den Bronzestatuen von Kim Il Sung (l.) und Kim Jong Il (r.) in PjöngjangPhoto: Cha Song Ho / AP

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North Koreans at the bronze statues of Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right) in PyongyangPhoto: Cha Song Ho / AP

Background: The nuclear program is perceived as a threat in a large part of the world. For the USA, which Pyongyang accuses of hostile politics, it represents a direct challenge. Kim’s threats against the USA, but also his diplomacy towards Washington, including his three, media-effective meetings with the former US President Donald Trump between June 2018 and June 2019 brought him to the world political stage. In the end, both of them stood empty-handed.

Straßenszene aus der Hauptstadt Pjöngjang: Fußgänger laufen durch den SchneePhoto: KIM WON JIN/AFP

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Street scene from the capital Pyongyang: pedestrians run through the snowPhoto: KIM WON JIN/AFP

Kim Jong-us military policy goals

If Kim sees nuclear weapons as a guarantee for the political survival of his administration, why does he get involved in talks with Trump about “denuclearization”? The sanctions have had increasingly clear consequences for the economy, says Lee. “He (Kim) needed some economic relaxation”. But Trump didn’t want to ease sanctions or provide economic aid until Kim made major concessions on nuclear disarmament.

Machtdemonstration: Laster mit Raketen bei einer MilitärparadePhoto: /AP

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Show of force: trucks with missiles at a military parade Photo: /AP

In the opinion of the former German diplomat Thomas Schäfer, however, the easing of sanctions for North Korea plays a rather subordinate role. “With North Korea you have to start with the long-term goals, and the goals have been the military-political goals for several years, actually since Kim Jong-un took office,” says the former German ambassador in Pyongyang. This includes an end to the joint maneuvers by the USA and South Korea, “and then, as a larger step, the withdrawal of American troops”.

According to Schäfer, Kim is not the absolute ruler of the country. He doesn’t make the decisions alone. When Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policy followed the so-called “Byongjin” line under Kim Jong-un in 2013, there was hope that North Korea could use more resources for the economy. The line envisaged the parallel development of a nuclear force and the economy. “The name was propaganda,” says Schäfer.

The slogan was intended to conceal “that the military-first policy became the military-first policy”.

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