Most media outlets portray Kim Jong Un as an imposing authoritarian dictator constantly threatening nuclear war, but the state-controlled North Korean media sings a far different tune. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s system of governance has always deified its leaders, reporting impossible feats of grandeur, erecting huge statues, and installing massive works of art in their honor. Kim Jong Un’s likeness has yet to join the portraits of his father and grandfather, but COVID-19 has given him a unique opportunity to shift his public persona from that of a military leader into still more of a father figure to the nation than his predecessors, even as he imposes stricter policies than ever. Examining the issue through the lens of managing political instability, a key element of regime survival, yields important insight into how and why Kim Jong Un’s public persona has shifted during his reign.
There are five different sources of political instability for authoritarian regimes, and North Korea has dealt with most of them. The first is an ouster, which refers to government officials deposing a leader through institutional means. In the late 1960s a group of detractors in what was known as the Kapsan faction vocally disapproved of Kim Il Sung’s premature push for industrialization and his growing cult of personality in an attempt to remove him from power. Kim avoided being ousted by purging all members of the group and other would-be dissenters.
The second is an internal overthrow, where a member of the regime attempts to take power from the sitting ruler. The Kim Jong Un regime has brutally addressed this potential outcome multiple times, most famously with the execution of Jang Song Thaek in 2013 and killing of Kim Jong Nam in 2017, both of whom were close relatives of Kim Jong Un and posed a threat to his power.
The third is a coup d’etat, which is a seizure of power that typically comes from military ranks. All three leaders of North Korea have engaged in the delicate dance of appeasing military leaders, rearranging them, purging them, and otherwise keeping them in line to prevent a coup.
Fourth, there is the risk of external removal, when a foreign power moves to eliminate a regime. North Korea’s weapons and espionage programs have many purposes, including deterrence against destabilization from foreign countries.
The final source of instability is one that has yet to threaten the regime but is long overdue: a popular uprising.
There has never been a popular uprising in North Korea. The regime had too tight a grip on its people during the reign of Kim Il Sung. Citizens were left to their own devices under Kim Jong Il, as the devastating Arduous March famine rendered the government mostly irrelevant in people’s daily lives as they focused on survival. But many North Korea watchers have long been saying that the opening of North Korea and overhaul of its current system will occur within our lifetime, and that change will come from within. For the past 20 years the North Korean people have acquired more and more independence from the regime, gaining access to trade and information by going around the law.
However, the pandemic changed things, as COVID-19 gave the regime the excuse to lock down the borders for the people’s own protection, blocking out foreign information but also blocking the resources citizens had previously used to support themselves. This means that there is no longer a way to placate the people, as Kim’s previous method of doing so was turning a blind eye and at times even encouraging free-market trade. The Kim Jong Un regime is finally focusing on control over the people themselves and is updating the image of the Great Successor being presented to the populace.
So, how has state media employed an evolving persona to manage any potential instability? We can see how mindful Kim Jong Il was of protecting his son from a potential coup, as the late leader endowed Kim Jong Un with military authority to succeed a regime backed by Korean People’s Army leaders that ran on a songun (“military first”) policy. After Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, references to Kim Jong Un always used militaristic language, referring to him as “general” and mentioning the socialist revolution. In the ensuing years, state media typically referred to Kim Jong Un using some variation of “Marshal Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, first chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army,” or simply “General Kim Jong Un.”
A shift began to occur around 2015, when language referring to Kim started to focus on his political role. Titles began emphasizing his position as the leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the central political party in North Korea, indicating the difference between where the current Kim derives his institutional power compared to his father. The press would still use Kim’s military titles, but it became more common for him to be referred to as “Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.”
In 2019 Kim Jong Un changed the presentation of his New Year’s address. Rather than lecturing from a stern, totalitarian podium he spoke calmly from a cozy armchair at eye-level with the camera. In 2020 he even shed tears over the plight of his people and expressed regret over not doing enough to help them. But 2021 was when momentum truly started gaining in the press to paint Kim as a friend in addition to a father figure. Throughout the years the use of the title “respected Comrade Kim Jong Un” fluctuated between dozens of times to a few hundred, but in 2021 the media mentioned the title more than 4,000 times. While he has since received the titles of “general secretary” and “president of the State Affairs Commission,” the use of the term “comrade” grounds and humanizes Kim, putting him on the same level as the common people, all of whom can be referred to with the same title.
Meanwhile, the recent speech by Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, is also indicative of a new kind of image. She implied that Kim Jong Un had contracted COVID-19, referring to him suffering from a “fever.” Such an admission accomplishes two things: It allows the regime to claim that Kim Jong Un personally understands the hardship of the people, and firmly frames him as mortal. Past leaders were always regarded as close to gods, invulnerable and all-powerful. The Kim regime has removed Kim Jong Un from this persona in favor of appearing relatable, part of the people rather than apart from them, and someone to hold affection and sympathy for.
At the same time, this new image is juxtaposed with draconian policies that threaten human rights conditions in the North. While pushing this loving and benevolent image of the beloved Comrade Kim Jong Un, the Kim regime has simultaneously been introducing new policies that are making conditions for the people harder than ever. They have announced the death penalty for those illegally selling medicine, shoot-to-kill orders toward anyone approaching the Sino-North Korean border, and refused foreign aid. This shines a light on the true nature of Kim’s new persona, revealing it to be little more than a smoke-and-mirrors routine to distract the public from the regime’s policies, which show blatant disregard for the people’s well-being.
The Kim Jong Un regime has shown that it wants more control over the people despite the relatively few tools it has to keep everyone in line. Emotional manipulation is economical and, as North Korea has proven throughout its history, effective. Most North Koreans were acutely aware of the harmful neglect of the Kim Jong Il regime, but that was a shift from the affection that Kim Il Sung had deliberately groomed during his reign. At that time, the country was isolated enough and the regime provided enough that they could buy into the narrative that Kim Il Sung provided for them, that they were better off than others across the world.
Kim Jong Un is now engaging in a delicate balancing act: demonstrating that his regime is working to foster adoration in North Korea for the Kim family ruler as it imposes draconian policies upon the populace. The regime may hope that by presenting a human, caring image of Kim Jong Un the people may be more forgiving of his policies. If North Korea’s state media can lead the majority of North Koreans to hold Kim Jong Un in the same regard that older generations held his grandfather, then the mythology may well sustain the regime that perpetuates it.