This month, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un marks a decade since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, 2011. At the time, Kim Jong Un had been in the public eye for only a year, following his September 2010 appointment as vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Though little was known about him then, Kim Jong Un’s grooming as future leader could have begun as early as late 2008.
Some observers speculated that a 27-year-old with no leadership experience would have to share power with guardians or be guided by regents. Others hoped that Kim Jong Un, who was educated partly in Switzerland, would implement economic and political reforms that would change the direction of the secretive authoritarian state.
Ten years later, Kim Jong Un is still at the helm of North Korea—and the country has neither collapsed nor opened up. Instead, Kim Jong Un has consolidated power domestically, built up North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, and improved the country’s relations with its traditional ally and largest trading partner, China. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed a major challenge to the country’s economy and could potentially cause a major health crisis, Kim Jong Un today appears more confident than ever.
Like his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, Kim Jong Un is a dictator whose legitimacy is bolstered by the Kim family hagiography. The 37-year-old instrumentalizes the brutal tools of repression that he inherited from his father and his grandfather. But Kim Jong Un is far from a carbon copy of his predecessors. In fact, over the past decade, he has established his own distinct leadership style.
One feature of Kim Jong Un’s leadership style is his openness, including about his ruthlessness. The 2013 execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek—a member of the leader’s inner circle who was married to Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Jong Un’s aunt and Kim Jong Il’s sister) and convicted of treason—was unusual not just because it was brutal, but also because it was so public. The details of Jang’s trial were reported in North Korean state media shortly after they took place, with a photograph of Jang bent over in humiliation—an unprecedented event in a country whose purged elites normally disappear from the public eye.
While both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il consolidated their power by purging rivals, their actions were never made as overtly public. For example, Kim Il Sung executed or imprisoned members of factions that were under the influence of the Soviet Union and China to ensure his grip on power. We know about these events today not because of North Korean announcements, but because of scholars’ works using formerly confidential Soviet and Chinese material.
Kim Jong Un’s demonstrated his brutality again in 2017, when two women groomed by North Korean agents assassinated Kim Jong Nam, the leader’s half-brother, in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport with a chemical agent called VX. Kim Jong Un is not the first in his family to worry about potential contenders for power at home. Kim Jong Il was also concerned about the ambitions of his half-brothers Kim Pyong Il and Kim Yong Il when he became leader of North Korea. The elder Kim’s solution was to post his half-brothers to foreign countries, far away from North Korea’s center of power. (Kim Pyong Il returned to the country recently after 30 years living outside it as a diplomat. Kim Yong Il passed away around 2000.)
While Kim Jong Nam’s assassination was not publicized in North Korea—the official media reported that a North Korean citizen died in Malaysia of a heart attack and that South Koreans were spreading rumors that the cause was poisoning—it was nevertheless a bold and brutal move that almost certainly sent a message to the North Korean elite that dissent would not be allowed and contenders for power would be eliminated.
Kim Jong Un’s candor extends to other, less sinister matters. For example, when a North Korean rocket disintegrated after launch in April 2012, the country’s official media reported the failure, an extremely rare development. By contrast, when North Korea failed to put a satellite into orbit in 2009 under Kim Jong Il, state media falsely told its public that the launch was a resounding success.
Kim has also made public admissions of shortcomings in his policy programs. In August 2020, he admitted in a party meeting that North Korea was not meeting its economic goals. He did this again at the eighth WPK Congress in January, when he said that the country had fallen short of almost all the goals in its five-year economic plan due to “various external and internal challenges,” a reference to sanctions, natural disasters, and the nation’s border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While these admissions may not be significant by Western standards, it is highly unusual for a leader of a country whose propaganda machine routinely tells its people they have everything. Kim Jong Un’s candor may reflect his realization that it is becoming increasingly difficult to perpetuate lies about the economy to the North Korean people, particularly when they rely on unofficial markets to procure food and basic goods—rather than rations from the country’s planned socialist economy, which has long been unable to provide for them.
It is also important to note that, while Kim Jong Un has been more open than his predecessors in some regards, those are the exceptions, not the rule. This also does not mean that he is loosening his grip on the North Korean people. In fact, Kim Jong Un has strengthened the country’s crackdown on foreign cultural influences this year, particularly those from South Korea. He told the country’s youth league earlier this year to regulate “anti-socialist” behavior, including foreign slang and foreign-influenced hair styles and fashion.
Over the past 10 years, Kim Jong Un has also shown his preference for a pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to some issues. This includes his approach to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The tests have always served both technical and political purposes, meaning that, while they are meant to contribute to the qualitative improvements of the country’s arsenal, they are also a demonstration of North Korean might—both for the international and domestic audience. The country has in the past chosen symbolic dates, such as U.S. Independence Day, to test-fire missiles to increase their political impact. Under Kim Jong Il, failed tests were reported as successes, underscoring their utility for political and propaganda purposes. Under Kim Jong Un, however, North Korea has admitted to test failures and made it a point to repeat test-firings of missiles until the authorities got it right.
This was demonstrated in the development of the intermediate-range missile known as the Hwasong-10, or BM-25 Musudan in the U.S. lexicon. North Korea began flight-testing the missiles in April 2016, but it took five failures before a successful launch in June 2016. In 2015, the country also experienced three failed test-firings of the Pukguksong-1 (known as KN-11 in the United States) submarine-launched ballistic missile before finally succeeding in April and August 2016.
North Korea under Kim Jong Un has conducted more than 120 missile tests, compared to the around 30 tests total carried out by his father and grandfather. Thanks to this persistence, North Korea now has a missile arsenal that covers a variety of ranges, some types of which could be equipped with nuclear weapons. This does not mean Kim Jong Un has never exaggerated North Korea’s capabilities—he has—but it is also true that North Korea now has much more technically sophisticated weapons that he can brag about.
In terms of foreign policy, Kim Jong Un showed a high tolerance for risk as well as a preference for leader-to-leader diplomacy in his dealings with the United States. In 2017, the North Korean leader carried out three intercontinental ballistic missile tests and a nuclear test, despite then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to respond with “fire and fury” should North Korea threaten the United States. Once Kim Jong Un achieved his military goal, which was to acquire the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-armed weapon, he turned to diplomacy in 2018, and held a total of three in-person meetings with Trump. That, however, ultimately collapsed as Kim Jong Un demanded sanctions relief and Trump saw North Korea’s denuclearization step offer as falling short of what was necessary.
Domestically, Kim Jong Un changed North Korea’s internal balance of power to ensure his control of the country. He did this by shoring up the power of the WPK and decreasing the country’s emphasis on the military, whose members had become influential under his father’s rule. To do so, he gradually distanced himself from his father’s “military-first policy,” which relied on the armed forces as the main support for the regime. In 2016, he disbanded the National Defense Commission, the policy’s command center, replacing it with the State Affairs Commission. This move was more than symbolic, as the new commission dropped some senior military members and included more civilians.
Kim Jong Un also cares about his image. He has been keen to be seen as a leader who cares about and spends time with his people. He revived an annual speech on New Year’s Day to explain his policies and rally his people, a tradition begun by his extrovert grandfather but avoided by his introvert father. The younger Kim continues to be portrayed in state media photographs, smiling widely and hugging children or surrounded by soldiers. Here, he is similar to his grandfather but not his father, who was not often photographed in situations that involved physical contact with ordinary North Korean people.
Kim Jong Un appears ready to make his mark on North Korea’s direction clearer in the months and years to come. A sign of that came at January’s Eighth Congress of the WPK, which was reportedly held without the normally required portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un as a backdrop. In this meeting, the party eliminated the term “military-first policy” from the preface of the party rules and inserted “people-first politics,” a concept introduced by Kim Jong Un. In a country where guiding slogans are important, this could be a signal that Kim Jong Un is prepared to tie his legitimacy to his commitment to improving people’s lives—a risky promise, given the North Korea’s economy is in a shambles due to mismanagement, pandemic-induced isolation, and sanctions imposed against the country for its bad behavior.
Much of the world underestimated Kim Jong Un in 2011. But over the years, the North Korean leader has managed to navigate the internal and external politics necessary to ensure the survival of his regime. In the process, he has also established his own leadership style. And at only 37 years young, he has a good chance of staying in office for years to come.
Naoko Aoki is a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and an adjunct professor at American University. Twitter: @naokoaoki