While much of the world may be focused on the U.S. presidential election in upcoming months, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un also has been doing some campaigning of his own. And although the outcome seems inevitable, the political agenda being revealed by Kim’s actions offer some useful insights for understanding the new leadership’s policy direction.
Since the death of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un and the power elites in Pyongyang have been working hard to strengthen the new regime’s legitimacy. With support from North Korean power elites, Kim Jong-un isn’t expected to face any challenges before he assumes the title of General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. However, it’s well worth watching the agenda that Kim Jong-un promotes before his rise to power is completely secure.
The new regime is promoting two major agendas: military first politics (Sŏn'gun) and Yuhun t’ongch’i, ruling “by the will of the dead.”
Military first politics, also known as Sŏn'gun politics, has been a driving force behind North Korea’s immense military power, and has been the key policy for the last several decades. By concentrating the nation’s resources into its military, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has remained a pillar for North Korean stability. The new regime’s continuing promotion of this policy indicates the significance of the military for the new regime and the influence it will wield.
Yuhun,from Yuhun t’ongch’I,are literally translated as instructions that the departed left behind. After the death of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il immortalized his father through propaganda and designated Kim Il-sung as “eternal president” in the North Korean Constitution. By rationalizing his leadership through his late father’s will, and by turning the words of his father into an almost eternally binding contract, Kim Jong-Il solidified his position and managed to convince the public and Workers’ Party of Korea to accept his leadership.
In the case of Kim Jong-un, Yuhun t’ongch’i carries both domestic and foreign messages. First, he’s legitimating his position within North Korea just as his father did almost two decades ago. Second, promoting Yuhun t’ongch’i also works as a message to foreign powers – the leader may change, but the management is still the same. Yuhun t’ongch’i not only legitimizes Kim Jong-un’s rise to the top, but also provides a reason to pursue the policies of the old regime. For foreign powers, it’s a statement from Kim Jong-un and the new regime that they will continue endorsing much the same policies, and it acts as a deterrent to foreign powers from exercising their influences on North Korea and its politics.
But it’s not just Kim Jong-un’s policies that offer an insight into North Korea.
Last month, 14 public inspections were reportedly performed by Kim Jong-un; among those inspections, eight were performed on military divisions, and two were on military related institutions. Interestingly, during public inspections, Kim Jong-un was shown not only shaking hands with both male and female soldiers, but also displaying close physical contact with soldiers, including clutching the arms of young soldiers and maintaining direct eye contact with a smile on his face.
Kim Jong-un’s surprising showmanship can be interpreted in the following ways:
First, it could be a sign that “military first” politics isn’t actually disliked by the North Korean public. The approval rate for military first politics can’t be accurately confirmed, but based on recent activities by Kim Jong-un, it seems there’s a belief that it is considered broadly acceptable. The reality is that Kim Jong-un’s young age and inexperience mean the new regime simply can’t afford to attempt propaganda that’s ineffective with the public.
Even though military first politics have been a magnet for criticism by North Korean experts and economists who blame this approach for the demise of the North Korean economy, North Koreans may still think otherwise. Every male North Korean is subject to up to ten years of military service, and the number of female military participants is increasing. Thus, the link between the public and the military could be very strong.
Second, Kim may be trying to appeal to the public by distancing himself a little from his father’s image. During public inspections, Kim Jong-un has been doing things that Kim Jong-Il rarely did – for a start Kim Jong-Il was reluctant to demonstrate or to initiate close physical contact. A string of failed policies that led to problems including famine are believed to have undermined Kim Jong-il’s popularity. His son, then, may see this new, warmer approach as a way of breaking with his father.
In addition, as more and more North Koreans have achieved self-sufficiency, surviving without the government’s failed food distribution system, the distance between the government and public could have widened – another potential motivation behind Kim Jong-un’s attempt at a more “accessible” image.
Indeed, Kim Jong-un has apparently been trying to increase connectivity with the public. His young age means it’s virtually impossible for the regime to falsify an extensive resume, so they have instead turned to efforts to appeal to nostalgic views of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Among the eight military units that Kim Jong-un inspected, five units were decorated with the title “Oh Joong Heub No.7 Regiment”; Oh Joong Heub’s regiment was responsible for protecting Kim Il-sung during the anti-Japanese liberation period in Korea, and it has been used as propaganda for decades to promote loyalty and morale among military personnel. Its connection with Kim Il-sung was therefore likely a reason for the inspection move.
It might still be too early to draw firm conclusions on North Korea’s overall direction, but it certainly seems safe to assume that North Korea will continue its military first politics. Under the juche ideology, military first politics may be seen as rational considering the perceived threats from the U.S. and South Korea. But the new regime will also never see its economy improve under military first policies. The fact is that even if the leadership sustains itself, North Korea will have no hope of escaping poverty anytime soon.
Kyu-toi Moon is a James Kelly Korean Studies Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.