Counting from the day of Kim Jong Il’s demise on December 17th, the Kim Jong Eun system is now six months old. Despite a slightly shaky start, many now see the process as a success, at least from the perspective of the regime.
All significant transfers of power were completed in the period between Kim Jong Eun’s elevation to the position of Supreme Commander last December through to the 4th Party Delegates’ Conference this April, and to celebrate this and the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth the country then attempted to launch the 'Kwangmyungsung-3' satellite and held a multitude of celebratory events on or around April 15th, the Day of the Sun.
The failure of the long-range rocket launch could have damaged the new leader’s credibility, but he seems to have ridden it out, recently emerging to speak at recent Chosun Children’s Union events in Pyongyang with a smile on his face. Recent events have even reportedly led some local citizens to harbor hopes that Kim might be about to bring them change.
However, the compressed succession process, the young man’s rather desperate and blatant imitating of Kim Il Sung, not to mention errors arising in the process of both U.S.-North Korea negotiations and the flunked rocket launch, all lead to the suspicion that existing potential causes of instability have not been overcome; rather, they have been sealed off temporarily.
As one North Korea expert asserted, “It would be rash to believe that a lack of unexpected events in the succession process has resulted in systemic stability. Internal and external problems Kim Jong Eun faces include food, reform and opening, the nuclear question, human rights and the conclusion of a peace treaty; not one of these is easy. These problems have not been solved; they are just lying dormant.”
▲ The harshest test of Kim Jong Eun’s leadership: food insecurity
There was absolutely no alternative to Kim Jong Eun because his father died suddenly. As an appointed successor, Kim thus had no problem inheriting power. Kim has since been ruling via his father’s amorphous “October 8th last instructions” for the sake of systemic stability. In January, North Korea made public these supposed instructions. In brief, they urge the regime to put Kim Jong Eun at its core and unite as one around him.
North Korea has also been developing idolization projects to eulogize the deceased leader; renaming his birthday ‘Kwangmyungsung Day’, erecting statues including a large one on Mansudae Hill, and releasing pin badges featuring his image.
Kim Jong Eun has shown a side which is noticeably different to that of Kim Jong Il during his six months in power. First, regime propaganda points out that he is a benevolent “man of the people”. To help with this assertion, he has given multiple speeches, sent handwritten letters to people at home and abroad, and tested the water supply in more than one People’s Army barracks. Crying children, soldiers and local citizens are core features of photos of Kim published in the North Korean media.
On one occasion, Kim visited a Pyongyang amusement park and, again breaking with public tradition, scolded attending cadres, saying, “That the funfair could be this pathetic was unimaginable. The phrase ‘it is always darkest directly beneath the candle’ means exactly this.”
Kim Jong Eun has supposedly penned a number of treatises, too, declaring, “We need to smoothly deal with the food problems the people are facing”, and demonstrating a seemingly impressive grasp of land management concepts to improve the fertility of soil.
But he has also done as his father did in a number of key ways; primarily, by showing the military that he loves them above all else. On New Year’s Day, Kim visited ‘105th Ryu Gyung Su Tank Division’. This was not all; in January, 10 of Kim Jong Eun’s 14 public appointments were in the military sector.
▲ Choi Ryong Hae and friends in the Kim Jong Eun era
Choi Ryong Hae, who only became a military general in 2010, became a vice-marshal in April, just a year and seven months later. Days later, Kim Jong Eun was appointed to the newly minted positions of 1st Secretary of the Chosun Workers’ Party and 1st Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Kim Won Hong was made head of the National Security Agency too, and Lee Myung Soo also rose to the top of the People’s Safety Ministry.
However, despite these examples there has not been that much reshuffling, perhaps suggesting a lack of alternate personnel. As one member of a state research institute told Daily NK when asked about Choi, “They’ve just put a civilian in a military uniform because there is nobody else they trust. What matters is whether the real military men will follow him.”
The military could protest at the situation, he pointed out, saying, “There is the aspect that political power is weakening. That Kim Kyung Hee, Jang Sung Taek and Choi Ryong Hae have ‘strengthened’ the system proves that there are no other people who are similarly trustworthy or reliable.”