The Observer view on a decade of North Korea under Kim Jong-un


Show caption People pay their respects at a mosaic depicting former leaders to mark the 10-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il on 17 December. Photograph: Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images Opinion The Observer view on a decade of North Korea under Kim Jong-un After his father’s death, he was propelled to the top of the totalitarian dynasty. How has he been allowed to last so long? Observer editorial Sun 19 Dec 2021 06.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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How do tyrants survive? History is littered with examples of cruel dictators and despots who dominated their countries for years, oppressing millions of “subjects”, and were never forcibly deposed. Joseph Stalin famously died in his bed at the age of 74. Mao Zedong lasted longer, dying of natural causes in 1976, age 82. Spain’s thuggish dictator, Francisco Franco, seized power in 1939 and was still in office when he died in 1975 at 82.

The obvious answer is fear. Other factors – cunning, chutzpah, charisma – play a role, too. But terror is the tool of choice for your typical tyrant. This is a lesson Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s “supreme leader”, learned at his father’s knee. And when Kim Jong-il died, 10 years ago last week, his then 26-year-old son was propelled willy-nilly to the top of the totalitarian dynasty founded in 1948 by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

It was by no means certain in 2011 that young Kim Jong-un was up to the job of oppressing 26 million people. Analysts predicted he would soon be overthrown. Some in South Korea hoped for a democratic revolution. Aping his forefathers, Kim fell back on fear to survive. In 2013, Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and long-time mentor, was arrested and executed.

Purges of other senior officials swiftly followed. Then, in 2017, in a darkly Jacobean plot, Kim’s elder half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, once viewed as heir to the dynasty, was assassinated by two young women wielding a nerve agent at an airport in Malaysia. Since then, no one has dared challenge Kim Jong-un’s rule.

Further evidence of Kim’s habitual, merciless brutality was provided last week by the Transitional Justice Working Group, a human rights organisation in Seoul, which published gruesome details of 23 public executions. Most of the shootings and hangings were not for crimes of murder or rape but for watching or distributing videos from South Korea, it said.

Kim’s own visceral fear – that North Koreans may become “infected” by the superior living standards, democratic politics and public freedoms and media of the South – spurs paranoid behaviour. Restrictions on every aspect of working and personal life have tightened in recent years. To mark the anniversary of his father’s death, North Koreans were reportedly instructed “not to drink alcohol, laugh, or engage in leisure activities”.

The predictable result of Kim’s 10 years of tyranny is a chronically impoverished, socially and economically backward country. It’s a country where food shortages bordering on famine conditions are common, where most people struggle to make a meagre living, and where state violence, corruption and the ever-present fear of a Stalinist prison gulag have reduced its citizens to terrified silence. North Koreans are Kim’s hostages.

So the question must be asked again, but this time of the great powers: how does this tyranny survive? Dating back to the Korean war, China has the most to answer for. While Pyongyang’s erratic behaviour causes problems for Beijing, its base calculation has not changed in 70 years: better a weak, dependent despot in the North than a strong, reunified Korea that, if South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, had his way, would join the western camp.

The US and allies such as Japan have likewise failed to do enough to end this gross affront to international decency and law. For too long, they were content to isolate, sanction and ignore the North. Now that Kim has built nuclear-armed ballistic missiles capable of hitting an American city – the biggest “success” of his leadership – it may be too late to take him down, politically or otherwise.

Donald Trump, as is his wont, made matters worse with ego-driven summits that boosted Kim and achieved nothing. Now China and Russia tacitly conspire to maintain the status quo, while the US enacts additional, ineffective sanctions and fulminates impotently. For North Koreans, more decades of tyranny beckon.

How has North Korea’s Kim Jong-un held on to power so long? – video