At the recent December 2019 plenum, Chairman Kim, rather than giving his traditional New Year’s speech, outlined a different strategy toward the US moving forward in 2020. In doing so, he highlighted the dignity of the country, a return to a combination of military and economic development, and the requirement for the people to tighten their belts during a period of prolonged sanctions. Kim’s strategic shift portends not only political, military and diplomatic changes, but also offers clues as to his evolving leadership style, intentions and flexibility as he begins his ninth year in power. Those clues are not to be found in the behavior and policies of his father or grandfather. For better or worse, this is now Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
Same Old Same Old?
If observers of the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong Un’s leadership style were to apply Occam’s Razor (e.g., the idea that the most likely explanation for an event is usually the simplest explanation) to his seven-hour speech during the recent 2019 Central Committee plenum, as well as to his subsequent personnel changes in the Foreign Ministry, the most tempting explanation would be that Kim has returned to his earlier byungjin policy, combining an emphasis on both economic as well as military development; they might also reasonably conclude that his recent political behavior presages a return to the DPRK’s hard-edged negotiating style as described in Scott Snyder’s classic work, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior. And observers might thereby be forgiven for assuming that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that Kim is a mere replica of his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung. But such thinking risks missing the nuances of Kim’s leadership style, and how he continues to evolve and mature as a strategic leader, both in his successes—which eluded both his father and his grandfather—as well as in how he is confronting the strategic challenges facing the DPRK as it begins 2020.
Kim shares his grandfather’s and father’s ruthlessness, legacy of human rights abuses, single-minded obsession with power and self-preservation, cult of personality and fierce devotion to the ideals of one-party rule, juche (self-sufficiency) and national pride—behavior that seems natural in a country surrounded by, or facing threats from, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and America. But Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, while sharing the younger Kim’s ruthlessness, caused deaths and destruction on a far larger scale. The Great Leader started a tragic war which left millions of Koreans dead, injured and displaced. The Dear Leader gave orders to assassinate nearly the entire South Korean cabinet in 1983 in Rangoon, and to blow up—in a tragic, hideous terrorist act—a civilian airliner in 1987, killing all of its passengers. Kim has—to his credit—not carried out such acts on a large scale, although his brutality with respect to internal human rights abuses, as well as purges and assassinations (e.g., his half-brother Kim Jong Nam in 2017 and his uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013), is well established.
The Great Leader dreamt of a united Korea, and championed the non-aligned movement and socialist causes worldwide, traveling far and wide among numerous “fraternal” countries. He had a sense of worldliness, élan, affability and charm. While more introverted, the Dear Leader preferred small gatherings of aides or individual colleagues, often in soirees, feasts, drinking sessions and bacchanalia which could go on for days. Unlike his father or his son, the Dear Leader possessed more of an artistic, emotional sensibility, seen in his love of art, culture, propaganda, music and film. Kim Jong Il is said—to the author by South Korean sources—to have even telephoned his dog (!) when away on inspection trips or when entertaining guests or working late into the night—he was famous for his workaholic habits, attention to detail and micromanagement. His skill set likely reflected a combination of personality traits, political intelligence, and his earlier leadership experiences, particularly within the Organization and Guidance Department.
The Apple Sometimes Falls Further From the Tree
Kim has shown a side similar to his grandfather in his famous onsite inspection visits—jovially hugging employees, smiling, back-slapping and posing for selfies. In this sense, both he and his grandfather are different from Kim Jong Il, who rarely spoke publicly and only traveled to Russia and China. Kim’s differences from his father and grandfather are a measure of his youth, diplomatic talent, style, trust in his wife and his sister (both of whom have traveled internationally with him) and ability to think and act more strategically, rather than impulsively. Kim’s diplomatic travels during 2018-19—to China, Russia, Singapore and Hanoi—have attracted worldwide attention, and in recent years he has come across as a mature, rational and adroit statesman. He has sometimes been referred to as impatient, but doing so misses the point—his impatience may be a function of external political pressures (particularly from the military) rather than a mere reflection of his personality. Certainly, after his 2019 New Year’s speech, warning of a change in strategy should the US not change its diplomatic approach, Chairman Kim has shown restraint and patience. He has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or resumed nuclear testing—nor is he likely to do so, although a public “display” of a new ICBM or ballistic missile submarine is not out of the question.
Rather, Kim has carefully allowed his subordinates to give lip service to a “Christmas gift,” and he has substituted strategic ambiguity for his previously demonstrated (during 2018) nuclear opacity. Doing so highlights his strategic sensibility, patience and evolving maturity as a leader. Importantly, while disappointed (and likely humiliated) by his failure to achieve sanctions relief at the 2019 Hanoi Summit with US President Donald Trump, Chairman Kim has refrained from attacking the president personally. More saliently, he has learned—as did Chinese President Xi Jinping—that a personal, warm and transactional relationship with Trump has not necessarily led to enduring strategic benefits for the DPRK. Lastly, his speech at the recent plenum highlighted the importance of national dignity and a need for “tightening [their] belts” for now. His use of the term “the dignity of the country” comes across as personal and deeply ingrained. That is Kim’s true “red line.”
This Is Not His Father’s or Grandfather’s North Korea
Kim remains an aspirational leader, even as the DPRK’s diplomacy is likely to shift—given the replacement of Ri Yong Ho and appointment of Ri Son Gwon (a military hardliner and protégé of Kim Yong Chol) as foreign minister—to a more muscular, hard-nosed version. And Kim, rather than acting impulsively to provoke an unpredictable President Trump, has surely taken measure of America’s current impeachment drama, the upcoming American presidential election, and Trump’s recent show of resolve with respect to the killing of Iran’s Quds Force leader General Soleimani, as well as the signing of the China trade deal. Kim is patiently waiting—with a tendency to avoid unnecessary political risks—knowing that, if Trump were to serve another four years, time is on his and the DPRK’s side. His grandfather’s dream of a grand bargain—of a peace treaty and formal diplomatic recognition by the US—remains tantalizingly elusive, but perhaps within reach, by combining an appeal to Trump’s legacy (and the appeal of a Nobel Prize) rather than his vanity with Kim’s singular sense of destiny. It would appear in such circumstances that America is playing checkers, while its adversaries (such as Russia, China and North Korea, respectively) are playing 3D chess and Go. Rather than looking to Occam’s Razor, to better understand Chairman Kim, observers might turn to Yasunari Kawabata’s great novel The Master of Go, in which a young upstart challenger defeats his older, fading challenger, and its tale of psychological tension between old traditions and a new pragmatism.