While he has only been in power for less than four years, some information, albeit highly speculative, is beginning to emerge about Kim Jong-un’s leadership style.
The most obvious departure from the way his father operated is Kim Jong-un’s open persona. He conveys an impression of an outgoing, people-friendly and ambitious leader, markedly different from Kim Jong-il’s isolationist, solitary and secretive image.
Kim Jong-un appears to be comfortable giving speeches and interacting with large groups of ordinary citizens, whereas his father only gave one publicly recorded speech that lasted 12 seconds. This aspect of Kim Jong-un’s leadership style harks back to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Reports from defectors also paint a picture of a young and impetuous Supreme Leader who is sometimes quick to make decisions without seeking advice. He apparently understands the tremendous power of the position he holds, but also understands that there are constraints established by his father and grandfather that the system imposes.
Fully assuming the role of Supreme Leader requires more than just acting on one’s own initiative and making decisions. It also requires the leader to interact with the wider leadership. Recent defector reports suggest that Kim Jong-un is becoming increasingly comfortable in his role as Supreme Leader. He is dealing not only with his closest advisers but also with powerful institutions, such as the military high command.
Furthermore, he appears to be keenly aware of the protocols that need to be observed and seems to understand the boundaries within which he must operate to safeguard his position and maintain regime stability. However, his policies indicate a bolder approach to dealing with the issues facing the regime, both internal and external.
As Kim Jong-un grows into his leadership role, it will likely become harder for his advisers to control him from behind the scenes. This could result in a very different leadership style than is evident today, which is firmly tied to Kim’s legitimacy building campaign. Once he is able to fully step into the shoes of the Supreme Leader, his decision-making process may change and the character and direction of his policies may become less opaque. Whether and how far he will depart from his father’s legacy remains to be seen.
No ruler governs exactly like his predecessor. Age, experience, legitimacy and relationships affect a leader’s characteristics and help determine the amount of power and authority he possesses. But these factors do not completely determine a leader’s position. In regimes like North Korea, political culture plays a fundamental role in how a leader comes to power and is treated by the wider leadership.
The North Korean regime is subservient to a “Leader” (Suryong)-based doctrine that is not easily undone. One of the most peculiar features of the North Korean system is the supreme authority of the “Leader” (Suryong) in every domain, including ideology, law, administration and regulations. As was made clear by North Korean propaganda, “The Suryong is an impeccable brain of the living body, the masses can be endowed with their life in exchange for their loyalty to him, and the Party is the nerve center of that living body.”
Regardless of Kim Jong-un’s qualifications, he was chosen by his father, the Supreme Leader, and is of the Kim bloodline. Unlike his father, he went through the “proper” channels to receive his titles of power. In his early 30s, he is the legitimate ruler, the Supreme Leader.
What Kim Jong-un does not possess is the unquestioned, absolute and enduring loyalty of the leadership and the population. Although political culture may guide the succession, the new leader’s ability to deliver on his policy agenda affects his ability to consolidate his power. Kim Jong-un is two hereditary transitions away from Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary credentials. His claim to legitimacy is thus weaker, and his policy decisions will play a greater role in maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the country’s elite.
Once Kim Jong-un has consolidated his power, he will be able to make his own decisions. In the meantime, Kim will have to rely on his closest advisers, working with his Personal Secretariat to set the agenda, present policy options and ensure that his decisions are implemented. The Personal Secretariat and Royal Economy emerged in the 1970s with Kim Jong-il’s rise to power and have become institutionalized as part of the leadership apparatus dedicated to ensuring the authority of the Supreme Leader. Both of these parts of the leadership apparatus are tied to the internal security apparatus. Together, these three pieces of the apparatus provide the foundation of the Suryong system.
The Kim dynasty may be living on borrowed time. The regime has entered into its third generation, which is unheard of in the annals of recent political history. Totalitarian regimes may be ruthless and draconian, but they are built on weak foundations. They are the result of informal alliances that are forged at a moment in time. As time marches on these alliances become weaker as they are replaced again and again. North Korea is no exception. The Kim regime lacks the vigorous mandate it once had when Kim Il-sung was the “living embodiment of the Korean people,” a fatherly figure. Now this figure is a man in his early 30s whose existence was not even known to the North Korean people six years ago.
The apparatus of power continues to create the image of a new, great and powerful leader, all-knowing and omnipresent. However, the message does not carry the same weight as it did for his grandfather and father, which puts Kim Jong-un in a very difficult situation.
If he attempts to continue along the same path as his grandfather and father as an unwavering tyrant, the system will eventually falter.
If he chooses to pursue reform and tries to reinvent the regime by departing from totalitarianism, the regime could collapse into chaos.
Whichever path Kim Jong-un follows, the rights of the majority of the North Korean people are likely to continue to suffer.
Adapted from “North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics under Kim Jong-un”
• Ken E. Gause is director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a research organization based in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of “North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un.”