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Did The West Misjudge Kim Jong-un?

Feb 12, 2013
Originally published on February 12, 2013 2:35 pm

When the boyish Kim Jong Un assumed power in North Korea barely a year ago after his father's passing, speculation was that he might strike out a more open and less provocative path.

Figuring out what is or isn't going on in North Korea has long been an exercise in reading tea leaves, and no one predicting a thaw in the hard-line hereditary regime did so without qualification.

Still, it didn't stop pundits from speculating that stylistic changes — like the public appearances by Kim's attractive pop-star bride — might signal substantive changes as well. There was also talk that the rising hemlines in Pyongyang might presage a new era on the Korean peninsula. As recently as last month, Kim even appeared to offer an olive branch to arch-rival South Korea.

But Tuesday's nuclear test, following close on the heels of December's successful satellite/missile launch, appears to have put such conjecture to rest. If Pyongyang's nuclear muscle-flexing is any indication, the new hypothesis is "like father, like son."

"Speculation a year or so ago was simply that — speculation," says Bob Hathaway, director at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program. "Over the last year, Kim Jong Un seems to have consolidated power more rapidly than we would have first thought."

Similarities To His Grandfather

Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that Kim, who's believed to be about 30, may be modeling himself more on his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader" who still looms God-like over North Korea despite his death nearly two decades ago.

"His grandfather, like him, started young," Snyder says.

By contrast, Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, didn't get the job until he was 53. And the grandfather enjoys an unquestioned degree of historical legitimacy that exceeds the father's legacy, Snyder says.

Hathaway agrees that "wrapping himself in the legitimacy of Kim Il Sung" is a good approach for the young leader.

"If he's taking after granddad, that should concern us," Snyder says, noting that a propensity for brinksmanship runs in the family.

"Kim Il Sung took risky positions that led to [the Korean War]," he says.

Kim Jong Un may have reason to be nervous about his grip on power. His uncle, Jang Song Taek, who wears a general's uniform, is perceived by some Korea watchers as a possible threat to his nephew.

Jang has reportedly been making changes among the military's top brass and has been "rapidly progressing" up the chain as he vies for a permanent spot at the head table, Snyder says.

The Wilson Center's Hathaway believes "the missile launch and this [nuclear] test appear to be a desire to placate the military, whose support baby Kim needs."

It's fair to assume that "the transition is not complete and that [Kim Jong Un] is still in the process of consolidating his power."

And that means, among other things, keeping at bay two powerful factions in North Korean society — the Communist Party and the military.

"It's important to understand that the people he needs to bring on are the very people who want to test bombs and missiles," Hathaway says.

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