On an icy December day in 2011, North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un was accompanied by seven advisers as they escorted the hearse that carried his father, Kim Jong Il, through the streets of Pyongyang.
None of the men remain with the young Kim. This October, he demoted the last of his father’s aides, both men in their nineties. They were among around 340 people he has purged or executed, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).
Kim, “obviously a madman” in the eyes of U.S. President Donald Trump, has completed a six-year transition to what the South calls a reign of terror. His unpredictability and belligerence have instilled fear worldwide: After he tested a “breakthrough” missile earlier this week, he pronounced North Korea a nuclear power capable of striking the United States. But a closer look at his leadership reveals a method behind the “madness.”
At 33, Kim Jong Un is one of the world’s youngest heads of state. He inherited a nation with a proud history, onto which a socialist state had essentially been grafted by Cold War superpowers to create a buffer between Communist China and the capitalist South. Under Kim’s father, the economy was mismanaged, and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union eliminated an important source of support. Up to three million people starved.
To consolidate a weak position, the young leader has been cultivating three main forces: military and nuclear power, a tacit private sector market economy, and the fear and adoration of a god. To this end, he has executed two powerful men and promoted one young woman – Kim Yo Jong, his younger sister, who Korea-watchers say is also Kim’s chief propagandist. She is Kim’s only other blood relative to be involved in politics: His elder brother, Kim Jong Chol, was rejected by their father as heir.
Over the five years to December 2016, Kim spent $300 million on 29 nuclear and missile tests, $180 million on building some 460 family statues, and as much as $1 billion on a party congress in 2016 – including $26.8 million on fireworks alone, according to the Institute, which employs high-level defectors.
“Yes, he has replaced many top commanders and officials so easily and ruthlessly killed some of them, which could make you wonder if he’s sane,” said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korean leadership expert at the Institute of Unification Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“But this is a historical way of governing that can put you in power for a long time.”