FOCUS on Pariah Leaders: Kim Jong-un

Drew Starbuck
Staff Writer

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is a pariah within the international community for the often brutal nature of his rule and his no-holds-barred approach to any dissent. The infamous leader succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, and has since bent the nation to his will. As Reuters states, the young leader consolidated his rule ruthlessly over the isolated nation, purging any opposition no matter their connections. 

In December 2013 in a move that would define the start of his rule, Kim executed his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, and stated that he had “removed the scum” from the Korean Workers Party. Before his execution, Jang was a major member of the family’s inner circle and served as a regent for Kim after his father’s death, according to Britannica. Jang had also advocated for closer ties with China, and this move was risky in that it could have angered North Korea’s largest economic partner and supporter in the world. 

North Korea watchers and experts state that Kim has also sought to portray himself as a more traditional political leader than his eccentric father. Ever since he rose to power, Kim Jong-un has made economic development a key part of his national agenda. He engaged in conversations with former U.S. President Donald Trump in nuclear negotiations in an effort to ease economic sanctions, reports Reuters. These talks were seen as pivotal for North Korea, as global sanctions on the country’s nuclear weapons program halted Kim’s ambitious plans of expanded construction projects, international free trade agreements, and other economic measures. Despite his efforts, Kim’s nation continues to struggle economically, according to the Associated Press. 

According to the Brookings Institute, the economic problems of the North Korean regime have only been heightened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government officials have been struggling to deal with shortages of medicine and essential goods along with soaring prices. The country has also been unable to import ink and paper for printing banknotes, forcing North Korean officials to issue temporary currency, according to a South Korean national intelligence briefing. However, the North Korean regime and its leader have shown uncanny survival instincts and the ability to stick through harsh economic sanctions. 

Kim has taken the political approach of portraying himself as a “man of the people” to solidify his popularity while his people continue to struggle, according to Reuters. His recent public appearances have reflected this desire—at a recent North Korean military parade, Kim was emotional and choked up during a speech as he paid tribute to the military for its response to outbreaks and other national disasters. He also apologized to the citizens of North Korea for failing to raise their living standards, Reuters reports. Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent researcher and former open-source North Korea analyst for the U.S. government, states “Kim’s modesty and candor, and his tears and choking, were all highly unusual, even for someone who publicly acknowledges shortcomings and has an established pattern of being expressive.” According to the Associated Press, the supreme leader has participated in public activities for 70 days so far this year, a 45% increase from the same period last year. 

Most of all, Kim Jong-un continues to pursue new developments in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which Kim views as essential to ensuring the security of his regime in the face of a far superior U.S. military. As BBC News states, the state media of North Korea reports that new train-based ballistic missiles, long-range cruise missiles, and a new hypersonic missile were all tested in September 2021 alone. The continued progress and aggressive advancement of the nuclear program remains a top priority for the supreme leader and remains the essential component of his pariah status in the international community.

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