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Did The West Misjudge Kim Jong-un?

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
February 12, 2013

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 path for the famously xenophobic regime.

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

Still, it didn’t stop pundits last summer from calculating the odds that Kim’s attractive pop-star bride might signal a hipper, or at least softer, image for the last bastion of Stalinism. Nor did it quash speculation that a sudden rising of hemlines in Pyongyang might presage glasnost on the peninsula.

But Tuesday’s nuclear test, following close on the heels of December’s successful satellite/missile launch, appears to have laid any 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 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.”

Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that instead while following in his father’s footsteps, Kim — just shy of 30 when he assumed power — seems even more so to be modeling himself on his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader who looms God-like over every aspect of North Korean society.

“His grandfather, like him, started young,” he says.

By contrast, Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, didn’t get the job until he was 53. And Grandad enjoys an unquestioned degree of historical legitimacy that exceeds the late father’s legacy, Snyder says.

Hathaway agrees that “wrapping himself in the legitimacy of Kim Il-sung” is the right move 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, his relative youth and inexperience aside, may have another reason to be nervous on the question of his legitimacy. 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, placating the two most powerful players 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. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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