SEOUL — After a decade in power, Kim Jong Un has clearly established himself as the star of the series in North Korea, overtaking the legitimate family shadow of his father and grandfather and seeking to justify his grip on power. on its own terms.
At major political meetings recently, portraits of Mr. Kim’s predecessors, including that of Kim Il Sung, who founded the communist state, who are normally present at such events were absent, according to the southern intelligence agency. -Korean.
The 37-year-old third-generation North Korean dictator also introduced a brand new ideological doctrine, “Kimjongunism,” the agency said. The new dogma has not been fully expressed publicly, but Mr Kim embraced populist rhetoric and blamed the technocrats.
He has staked his claim for more self-centered leadership as his country of more than 25 million people grapples with long-standing problems: food shortages and a failed economy, both made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. Diplomacy aimed at normalizing relations with the West has also stalled.
The push-and-pull between Mr. Kim’s newly envisioned North Korea and these legacy issues is one of the main topics of a year-end Workers’ Party plenary session taking place this week. The meeting coincides with the 10th anniversary on Thursday of Mr. Kim’s formal accession to power.
Kim is expected to deliver a political speech, outlining North Korea’s plans for 2022, either in the plenary session or potentially in a speech on January 1.
“Previously, there were exchanges about memories of his father and grandfather,” said Christopher Green, senior consultant on Korean issues for the International Crisis Group. “But after 10 years, it looks more like Kim Jong Un’s North Korea than just a political legacy.”
The pandemic has posed a serious test for Mr Kim. He tightened controls at his country’s borders nearly two years ago, causing trade with China to fall. North Korea, which claims to have no cases of Covid-19, has refused millions of donated vaccines. This leaves the population vulnerable to widespread transmission if the borders are reopened.
This year, Kim warned of food shortages and said the country was facing the worst crisis in its history. Food and other basic commodity prices are volatile, with some rising rapidly, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said earlier this month.
Amid the pandemic and sanctions, Mr Kim has stayed away from reforms and opted for more centralization. Mr. Kim also lambasted the country’s youth for ideological slippages, while shaking its ranks, including demoting its senior military official, because of disloyalty and what he called outdated ways of thinking.
“Kim Jong Un is at a terrible stalemate,” said Kongdan Oh, a Washington-based North Korea expert who has written several books on Kim’s regime. “His first priority must be how to deal with economic problems. “
Economic pain is unlikely to change the way Pyongyang approaches stalled nuclear talks with Washington, given the regime apparently still has enough funds to continue carrying out weapons tests and apparently pacifying the country’s elites. said Soo Kim, a North Korean expert at Rand Corp. , a political think tank.
The United States and North Korea have not had formal talks for more than two years. There is no indication that the government of Mr. Kim “would consider changing its policies in the interest of economic recovery and improving the lives of North Koreans,” said Ms. Kim, former analyst at Central Intelligence Agency.
The country continues to have a poor human rights record, with the United Nations passing a resolution last month condemning North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and egregious” violations that “may constitute crimes against humanity.” It was the 17th consecutive year that the United Nations had adopted such a resolution.
Mr. Kim attempted to humanize himself, unlike the deification of his father and grandfather in official propaganda. He shed tears in public during a military parade last year and even let his recent weight loss become national news.
He did not publicly explain “Kimjongunism”. But its emergence signals Mr. Kim’s desire to differentiate his ideology from those of his father and grandfather, even if, in essence, policies do not stray radically from the past.
Over the past decade, Mr. Kim has made major strides in the field of arms, while also managing to secure two face-to-face meetings with President Donald Trump and tighten his grip on the country. North Korea has used technology to strengthen citizen surveillance and support the regime’s finances through illicit hacking.
A sign of Mr. Kim’s sense of self-fulfillment is the promoted title he gave himself at a rare meeting of the Workers’ Party Congress earlier this year. He rose from president of the ruling party to secretary general, securing himself the high position much faster than his father and grandfather, who each secured the title in their mid-fifties.
With the choice of the title, he actually usurped the posthumous honor given to his father as the eternal party secretary general, said Fyodor Tertitskiy, a North Korea scholar at Seoul Kookmin University.
“I have no other explanation than his ego,” Tertitskiy said. He seems to be saying, ‘I’m doing it because I can. “”
Pyongyang, which has spent years under the pressure of sanctions, has found ways to circumvent economic restrictions, keeping workers hidden abroad, using shell companies to hide financial transactions, and hiding the identity of their ships smuggled goods, according to UN reports.
There were signs this year that North Korean hackers were laundering stolen cryptocurrencies using non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, said Aaron Arnold, former finance and economics expert for the United Nations Panel. United Nations monitoring the application of sanctions in North Korea, which left earlier this year.
“North Korea is exceptionally innovative and entrepreneurial when it comes to sanctions circumvention,” said Arnold, currently at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
Write to Timothy W. Martin at [email protected]
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