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Tracing Focus of Kim Jong-Un’s Eight-Year Ruling : What Did He Do Over the Past Eight Years?

Han Ki-Bum(chair research fellow, North Korea Research Institute)

Features of Kim Jong-Un’s Ruling Style: Intense Political Tendency

              On May 1, Kim Jong-Un set out for an opening ceremony at a fertilizer plant in the city of Sunchon after his 20-day disappearance. Rumors of cardiac surgery, early retirement, or death swirled for a while, but South Korea’s National Intelligence Service stated that no cardiac treatments or surgery were conducted (May 6) and indicated the possibility of the leader evacuating to Wonsan for self-quarantine due to the potential COVID-19 infection of one of his aides. Since his disappearance, the author started to think about his political actions during his governance.

              This is the ninth year of Kim Jong-Un’s ruling. It is not difficult to recall the decisions he has made. For instance, the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, his uncle and then Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, frequent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and summits with President Trump can be listed. It is relatively clear what areas Kim Jong-Un has been interested in over the past eight years since he showed tendencies of getting intense toward specific policies in which he is interested. This paper attempts to evaluate features of both Kim Jong-Un’s ruling and political deflection by carefully observing the focus of his eight-year ruling.


Changes of Ruling Focus: A Reign of Terror à Technological Advancement of Nuclear and Missile Capability à The U.S.-DPRK Nuclear Negotiation

              The figure below is a list of events involving Kim Jong-Un’s interests or valued policies selected and divided annually. From the list, we can divide the past eight years into four groups of time periods: 1) 2012-2013, the seeking period of ruling direction; 2) 2014-2015, the enhancement period of authority; 3) 2016-2017, the reinforcement period of nuclear capability; and 4) 2018, the pursuit period of nuclear negotiation.



Figure 1. Main Policies or Interests of Chairman Kim Jong-Un Per Year


Main Policies or Interests


Official power succession, advertising Kim Jong-Un’s regime legitimacy, trial of improving economic management


Declaration of Byungjin (simultaneous development of military and economy) policy, preparation for the “Great Battle for National Unification,” the purge of Jang Song-Thaek


Purges and reforms of political elites, large-scale artillery fire drills, becoming cautious about China (due to intimacy between South Korea and China)


The 70th anniversary of the KWP establishment, mobilization of material and manpower (foreign currency business), absolutization of authority (continuing purges)


The 7th Party Congress (establishment of sole-ruling), nuclear/missile developments, intense speed battle campaigns


Advancement of nuclear/missile capabilities, U.S. confrontation management, agitating the ROK anti-regime battle


U.S. nuclear negotiation à ease of sanctions, diversification of foreign relations, declaration of economic all-out war


Breaking negotiation stalemate, strengthening direct imperial ruling system, development of short-range projectiles


Frontal breakthrough of economy (foundation building through self-help), development of strategic weapons, coping with the COVID-19 pandemic



1.      2012-2013, The Seeking Period of Ruling Direction


Kim Jong-Un’s tasks during this period involved carrying out power succession steadily, legitimizing his regime, and stabilizing the power base. Firstly, power succession proceeded smoothly by taking over three different titles: the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), and the First Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Securing cooperation from political elites held no serious difficulties since Kim Jong-Un had already been appointed as a successor during the Kim Jong-Il regime and the North Korean people had acclimated themselves to the sole-ruling political culture. The timing of Kim Jong-Un’s appointment, three years prior to Kim Jong-Il’s death, was fortunate.
        Secondly, legitimization of hereditary power succession was acceptable in accounting for the Mount Paektu Bloodline; however, Kim Jong-Un, as a person who studied in the West and obtained ruling power at a relatively young age, wished to gather people’s support by improving the economy. In the official power succession ceremony in April 2012, Kim Jong-Un proclaimed, in his first speech, “From now on, I will not have our people
draw their belt tighter anymore.” Before this event, on the day of Kim Jong-Il’s state funeral ceremony (December 28, 2011), he commanded officials to “research remedies for economic management” to improve the living standard.
        During the first year of ruling, Kim Jong-Un often communicated with regular citizens and emphasized economic improvement, increase of food production, and expansion of compulsory education. These priorities led citizens in Pyongyang to delude that “he considers reforming and opening the country.” However, his “ingenuous” ideas did not last long.

        Kim Jong-Un announced a policy for “developing the economy and nuclear weapons simultaneously,” namely Byungjin (Parallel Development) in March 2013. In practice, this policy states that economic development would become achievable under the guarantee of nuclear capability. In other words, nuclear development was the first priority and economic reform, and the improvement of livelihood, would come after. Simultaneously, he identified power attributes in a speedy manner from party elites.

        North Korea explicitly expressed bellicosity against South Korea. Kim Jong-Un frequently visited units in the areas of the Military Demarcation Line and front-line islands in Sohae (the West Sea), and ordered a war stand-by mode to “prepare for the great battle for national unification.” In the period of the ROK’s political power shift to Park Geun-Hye, North Korea shook off a hand for dialogue by conducting long-range missile tests (April and December 2012, February 2013). During this initial period of power seizure, domestic politics was more important for Kim Jong-Un to gather support from power elites, by performing bellicose leadership, than improving inter-Korean relations.


2.      2014-2015, The Enhancement Period of Authority


Kim Jong-Un strengthened his grip through frequent purges and encouraged the promotion of manpower mobilization and loyalty funds for the sake of the “extravagant” ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the KWP. Militarily, Kim Jong-Un shifted the nation’s warfare from mechanization to duel artillery and frequently conducted artillery fire drills. Diplomatically, he reinforced vigilant attitudes toward China because of President Xi Jinping’s earlier visit to South Korea (July 2014) instead of the North.

Kim Jong-Un’s reign of terror had started from the elimination of Jang Song-Thaek and his followers back in December 2013 and continued to the following year in the name of the “removal of remaining poison of sectarians” or purges of corrupt executives. About 130 elites were executed during these two years. The idea that “I recognize only Kim Jong-Un” permeated among power elites and any small challenges against Kim Jong-Un’s power and authority were not accepted. Governed by Kim Jong-Un’s authoritarianism and reign of terror, the phenomena of power elites showing their allegiance superficially whilst having different thoughts in their mind had been observed. In other words, many kissed the hand they wished to cut off.

Entering his 4th year of ruling, Kim Jong-Un directly led the KWP’s 70th anniversary ceremony, which was his first large-scale political event to show off his dominating power. He urged officials to increase production of agriculture, stockbreeding, and fisheries (the 3-big industries) as well as construction of power plants, housing, and others. He raised the quasi-tax as well. For example, in the form of a supportive “gift” to the KWP, for military parades and beneficial residents, he requested: social tasks (contribution to society apart from their main work) to each organization; loyalty funds for workers of foreign currency earnings and labor force for youths, soldiers, and students by joining “storm troops;” donation of cash, soy sauce, or soy bean pastes to ordinary citizens.

Kim Jong-Un also showed a great interest in improving artillery and missile units. During February and September 2014, he strategically redeployed large-scale artillery units from east to west and conducted intensive artillery fire drills using hundreds of shells. Otherwise, Kim Jong-Un did not conceal his feelings of betrayal against China, which were caused by President Xi’s earlier visit to South Korea (July 2014) rather than a visit to the North. Pyongyang criticized China by claiming, “China is our old enemy even worse than the U.S. and Japan” and suspended exchanges among high-ranked officers. In addition, North Korea canceled traditional goodwill events and strengthened its cautious attitudes.


3.      2016-2017, The Reinforcement Period of Nuclear Capability


During this period, Kim Jong-Un focused on enhancing nuclear and missile capabilities to fulfill reliable, credible threats to enable North Korea to attack the mainland U.S. Over two years, North Korea conducted: nuclear tests three times (Jan. 6 and Sep. 9 of 2016 and Sep. 3, 2017); ballistic missile firing more than 40 times (23 times in 2016, 20 times in 2017, and increasing the number of mid-long range missile launchers); and declared “completion of state nuclear weapons” in November 2017.

At the same time, surviving from pressure generated by the international community was another critical issue. Kim Jong-Un’s continuous nuclear and missile provocation irritated the Trump administration, which took office since 2017, and drove the two countries into a chicken game that reached the brink of war. For example, when Kim Jong-Un fired a long-range missile on July 4, 2017 as “a gift for the U.S.’ Independence Day,President Trump replied on August 7 by stating, “They will be met with fire and fury.” Moreover, on August 10, North Korea threatened the U.S. by “completing an enveloping fire operation to Guam.” North Korea voluntarily incurred high-intensity international economic sanctions in compensation for nuclear and missile developments, and President Trump stressed that Rocket Man is on a suicide mission…” and the U.S. would “…totally destroy North Korea.”

              Kim Jong-Un ruined inter-Korean relations with its fourth nuclear test in 2016. In October of that year, the “Choi Sun-Sil Scandal” broke out and as soon as South Korea entered the presidential election in the following year because of Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment, North Korea concentrated on agitating anti-governmental activities in the South. North Korea did not stop its provocation even after inauguration of the Moon administration on May 10, 2017. On the contrary, Kim Jong-Un carried out the 7th Party Congress (May 6-9, 2016) soon after holding an event for the 70th Anniversary of the KWP (October 2015) and finalized military-first politics (Songun politics) and legacy ruling (Yuhun Chongchi). Then, the regime appointed Kim Jong-Un as “Chairman of the KWP” and declared the inauguration of the de-facto “Kim Jong-Un sole-ruling system.” Separately, the Kim Jong-Un regime actively used the Party Congress for mobilizing citizens’ efforts by continuously running various speed campaigns, e.g. the “70-day Battlein Spring 2016, the “Mallima Speed Movement” right after the Party Congress, and the “200-day Battle” from June 1 to the eve of Kim Jong-Il’s death (December 17).


4.      2018-May 2020, The Pursuit Period of Nuclear Negotiation


The political environment of the Korean Peninsula changed dramatically. Changes started because the “conciliate atmosphere was formed in the Korean Peninsula from Kim Jong-Un’s strategic decision (indicating will of denuclearization) and North Korea’s international authority was enhanced, and as a result inter-Korean relations significantly changed(Kim Jong-Un’s expression in his 2019 New Year’s address). He declared the “finalization of Byungjin policy and halting nuclear and missile testsand stated that he would “fully focus on economy” (April 2018).

Kim Jong-Un’s summit diplomacy counted up to 12 times between 2018 and 2019. This amount of summits had never happened before. Five times with President Xi Jinping, three times for inter-Korean Summits, two times with President Trump, once with President Putin, and one time for a gathering of the top leaders of South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S. at Panmunjom. Pyongyang broadcasted the summit where “leaders in the world praise Kim Jong-Un’s brilliant strategy and greatnessand “the U.S.’ president in his age of 70s and the South’s president in his age of 60s both bent their knees to Kim Jong-Un, who is in the age of 30s.

However, Kim Jong-Un’s “denuclearization” process proceeded quite slowly. After having conflicting opinions of President Trump’s “denuclearization first” and Kim Jong-Un’s “ease of sanctions first,” the U.S.-DPRK nuclear negotiation fell into deadlock. Kim Jong-Un openly started again to improve high-tech weapon systems. During 2019, North Korea fired short-range projectiles 13 times and in December, “critical tests” were conducted twice at the launch pad used for long-range missiles.

Kim Jong-Un intimidated the U.S. with possibilities of the “restoration of Byungjin politics” or “withdrawing a will of denuclearizationat the KWP plenary in late December. He claimed that since the U.S. maintains sanctions, the DPRK would develop new strategic weapons and take shocking real actions,and warned that the country would publicly resume activities of nuclear and missile technological advancements. However, Kim Jong-Un also stated that “advancement of deterrence is an adjustable subject to the U.S.’ actions” and left a margin for negotiation.

At the party’s plenary in December, Kim Jong-Un exhorted North Korean citizens to follow the economic “Frontal Breakthrough Battle” and urged officials to build a “self-reliant economic foundation” rather than waiting on sanctions to be lifted, as the confrontation with the U.S. would continue for longer. North Korea spontaneously invited high-intensity economic sanctions in exchange for its nuclear and missile developments, and this endangered North Korea’s economy. Export amount significantly dropped (about USD1 billion à 1/10 size), manufacturing shrank due to the difficulties of importing core parts, and markets showed signs of instability. In addition to these effects, the COVID-19 pandemic made people’s livelihood even more severe.

Otherwise, Kim Jong-Un promoted the direct imperial ruling system from the 7th Party Congress for the sake of enhancing his own power. He dislodged veterans through a series of personnel renewals in the KWP and governmental organizations, and assigned Kim Yo-Jong and other close aides to core positions. By doing so, Kim Jong-Un reinforced “national representativeness” as the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission and strengthened tightening disciplines of authorities.


Kim Jong-Un’s Leadership: Powerful Authoritarianism + Militaristic Adventurism and Open Pragmatism Going Forth?

During the past eight-year ruling, three periods can be highlighted as years when Kim Jong-Un showed strong interests in economic issues: 1) 2012-2013, the initial period after power succession; 2) during the timing of the 70th Anniversary of the KWP in October 2015 and the 7th Party Congress in May 2016; 3) the “denuclearization” rhetoric period in 2018; and 4) the economic “Frontal Breakthrough Battle” period in 2020. Kim Jong-Un expressed his strong will to “promote livelihood” in his initial period after power succession, however, this intention was suspended after the announcement of that he would pursue “Byungjin politics” (March 2013) and prioritize the allocating budget to nuclear and missile developments. In the years of 2015 and 2018, the number of Kim Jong-Un’s on-site supervision increased in the field of economy, but many cases were merely visits for celebrations of the KWP’s ceremonies and external negotiation conditions. In addition, the main objective of his emphasis on economic issues was financial expansion.

The political tendency that Kim Jong-Un revealed consistently throughout his governance, including the succession period, can be summarized as “militaristic adventurism.” Kim Jong-Un’s interest in artillery units in the early period shifted to an interest in nuclear and missile developments. This time period was followed by: the attack on Yeonpyeongdo (November 23, 2011) during his succession period; long-range rocket launches in 2012 (failed in April à retried in December); the announcement of Byungjin politics and rhetoric of the “Great Battle for National Unification” in 2013; intensive artillery drills from February to September 2014; technological advancements of nuclear and missile capability during 2016 and 2017; launches of short-range projectiles in 2019; and the announcement of “new strategic weapons development” in 2020.

Since 2018, the remarkable change in his political style involves an increase of diplomatic activities. Until then, the evaluation for Kim Jong-Un’s leadership was “3 Is” – Indifference (diplomatic disinterest), Incompetence (economic incapacity), and Intolerance (zero political clemency). In short, Kim Jong-Un merely dominates the country and is unable to govern it. Still, since 2018, he has been praised in the North as “a world-class leaderwho achieved “completion of nuclear weapons development” and “diversification of foreign relations.”

In conclusion, features of Kim Jong-Un’s leadership can be summarized as “powerful authoritarianism” internally and “militaristic adventurism” externally, by observing the past eight years of his ruling focus. The focus was a result of dogmatic and belligerent characteristics in North Korea’s leadership system and the country’s power elites’ rigid basis that mingled with Kim Jong-Un’s “daring and boldness” ostentation to overcome his “novice leader” complex. Even so, he showed “a will for livelihood enhancement” during the initial period of his leadership and “a will for having dialogue and compromise” recently. If the conservative policy tendency, present during the middle stage of his leadership and attributed to internal power types, is maintained, one can build a theory that there are possibilities that Kim Jong-Un’s leadership would shift to open pragmatism in the future.