Mad, bad or misunderstood? What is Kim Jong Un really thinking?

Kim Jong Un
The youngest Kim’s central policy is to place the military squarely at the centre of his regime. Picture via DPRK state media

It’s been difficult to figure out the logic of Kim Jong Un’s recent nuclear grandstanding — many simply dismiss his actions as either madness or a deathwish. So, to make sense of what’s going on behind the bamboo curtain, PLN has reached out to a seasoned DPRK (North Korea) observer for their opinion…

I’ll start by saying that despite all the rhetoric coming from Kim Jong Un and President Trump, the people of the Philippines, Seoul and even Guam should be sleeping soundly in their beds.

No diplomats have left North Korea (when they leave you should take notice). So as nuclear standoffs go this isn’t even the worst of the last five years.


The reality is there will not be a nuclear war, because that is what nuclear deterrence does . It deters people from bombing each other.

But how and exactly why did we get to this place? And that is a question with a lot of answers.

We generally assume North Korea is a dictatorship, with Kim Jong Un the paramount all-encompassing leader. This, while true to an extent, ignores the different factions and factors that exist in a communist system.


When Kim Jong Un took power following the death of his father in 2011 he had spent barely two years as ‘heir designate’.

In comparison, his father Kim Jong Il became heir of North Korea in 1972 and took over daily running of the country in 1980. Despite this, when his father Kim Il Sung died in 1994 it took a three-year period of mourning and much political manoeuvring for him to come out in 1997 as paramount leader.

That means despite 22 years being primed to take over, it still wasn’t a smooth transition. Kim Jong Un had under two years.
To make this take-over effective, he needed allies.


The Arduous March

Throughout the history of North Korea, and during the time it was ruled by Kim Il Sung, the politics of North Korea existed in a very traditional Marxist-Leninist tradition.

It was run by the Korean Workers Party, with the military, while powerful, subservient to the party.

This all changed in 1994

The death of Kim Il Sung followed the fall of the Soviet bloc, and thus the end of North Korean prosperity. The result of this was a famine, later referred to as “the Arduous March”.

During this period Kim Jong Il introduced the mantra of Songun, or military first. This meant that if there were food, the military got it first. So while people might have been starving, the military — the guys with guns — were not. And so the regime survived the famine with the support of the army.

But with Songun, Kim Jong Il let the genie out of the bottle, and it proved difficult to put back.

When people think of a socialist system, they assume everything being owned by the “state”. Now, while this is true to a certain extent, the state can be a very broad term.

In North Korea, the party, the leadership, and the army all have their own corporations representing the “state”, but also their own self interests. Put simply, since Songun, the army is a serious property owner, business conglomerate and trader.

Following the death of Kim Jong Il, the main mentor to Kim Jong Un was his uncle Jiang Song-thaek. He was the husband of the sister of Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Un and his uncle

Jiang was always a controversial figure who was regularly sidelined, only to be rehabilitated by the elder Kim.

He was not only seen as the mentor of Kim Jong Un, but many felt he would be the real powerbroker, acting as a kind of regent.

More importantly, he was also seen as a party member that wanted to bring North Korea back into the realms of a traditional Marxist-Leninist Party, and thus further away from the army. He was also seen as pro-reform, China style. Both of these things would be a threat to the power of the army.

In the middle of 2013, Jang was passed over as special envoy to China. Instead, the job went to a member of the military. And by December he was removed from the party and executed.

Following his death, talks of economic reforms or moving back to a party-centred government all but disappeared. The status quo was maintained, and not only did the army maintain its position, but it was strengthened.

To the western media, it was “Crazy Kim” who killed his uncle, but it’s not that simple. This was a factional killing, that while undoubtedly ordered by Kim Jong Un was most likely done to secure the support of the army, and to preserve the military first strategy and so his position as paramount leader.

Permanent threat, permanent war

So why does this affect us today? Uncle Jiang was not only pro-reform and pro-trade, but he supported these aims over military spending and provocation.

After Jiang was killed, North Korea expanded and extended its military programme, including nuclear and missile development. This is just logical, as when you have a powerful military propping up your government you have to give them all the toys they demand.

Permanent threat, permanent war, a lack of civilian leaders with power, and over 20 years of a military first doctrine means the guys with the guns (and now nukes) are not likely to be putting them down any time soon. Take away the rhetoric and you take away the danger of being invaded, and so you diminish the importance of the army. Who needs an army if you have peace?

So what if the the North Korean leadership suddenly decides to strip the army of its power. Would they then unilaterally get rid of their WMDs? The North Koreans are only too aware of how that worked out for Colonel Gaddafi.

Like it, or not it’s time to get used to a nuclear North Korea.

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