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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

10 years in, Kim Jong Un steps out of his grandfather’s shadow

  • December 19, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 0:16 a.m.
  • English Press

YOSUKE ONCHI, Nikkei staff writer


SEOUL — As Kim Jong Un approaches 10 years since becoming North Korea’s leader, he has increasingly focused on carving out a legacy independent from the father and the grandfather who were worshipped during their rule. 


2021 was a year of “victory,” Kim told the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee on Dec. 1, boasting his own accomplishments. 


“Next year will be an important one, as we should wage a very giant struggle as much as we did this year,” the leader said, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.


The death of leader Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17, 2011, opened the door for his third son, Kim Jong Un, to take over the secretive country. The younger Kim — not even 30 years old at the time — became supreme commander of North Korea’s military toward the end of that year. He assumed the role of national leader in April 2012.


Kim has seen highs and lows since, including a historic summit with the U.S. and the subsequent collapse of their bilateral dialogue. But developing nuclear weapons has remained a priority for him despite international isolation and a worsening economy.


Since reviving the title of party general secretary in January, Kim has focused on burnishing his image and bolstering is his authority. He removed portraits of the former North Korean leaders — Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder — from the party’s congress hall. He also cut references to his forebears’ ideologies from the party rule book.


The term “Kimjongunism” is now being promoted in official circles, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service says.


Kim Jong Un’s substantial weight loss in recent months only feeds speculation that the leader is thinking long term.


Kim, born not to his father’s wife but to the former leader’s consort, needed a way to bolster his legitimacy after taking the reins. He did not have a single photo of him taken with his grandfather. North Korean watchers say he intentionally gained weight to look more like Kim Il Sung. 


By 2019, the NIS estimated Kim to have doubled in weight to 140 kg. But the longer Kim held power, the less he needed to invoke his grandfather.


Weight-related health issues also would risk cutting Kim’s reign short. The weight loss “shows that he is thinking about managing his health to ensure long-term rule,” a South Korean intelligence source said.


Kim has ruthlessly quashed potential rivals since taking power. He purged several high-ranking figures early on who worked under his father and held influence over the military. Kim stripped Ri Yong Ho, his adviser and chief of general staff of the Korean People’s Army, of his posts and executed uncle Jang Song Thaek.


His half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017. Though Kim Jong Un appoints capable individuals to important posts, he frequently reshuffles his aides. The only person he appears to trust is his sister Kim Yo Jong.


Internationally, Kim Jong Un made a splash in 2018 when he held a historic summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump. Kim hoped to leverage North Korea’s progress on nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles to secure guarantees for his regime and an end to economic sanctions. But once he realized the U.S. would not budge unless the North took concrete steps to denuclearize, Pyongyang resumed ballistic missile tests.


“Compared with Kim Jong Il, who was introverted and cautious, Kim Jong Un is more of an aggressive gambler who enjoys high-risk, high-return scenarios,” said Kwak Gil-sup, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a former analyst for the South’s NIS.


Shortly after Kim took power, North Korea test-fired a long-range missile, which the leader called a “satellite.” The country has conducted four nuclear tests since. U.S. and South Korean authorities have also detected 120 missile launches.


Next year will bring a South Korean presidential election in March and American congressional midterms in November, presumably as the U.S.-China rivalry continues to grow. Kim likely will press on with strengthening North Korea’s military capabilities to use as a negotiating chip once another window for dialogue opens.

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