Trump & Kim

Kim Jong Un: Leader out to make North Korea normal

MR KIM JONG UN.
MR KIM JONG UN.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With carefully calculated steps, North Korea's hitherto reclusive leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, is slowly but surely emerging to claim his spot on the world stage.

At 34, the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission - Mr Kim's formal title - is one of the world's youngest leaders and presiding over a highly secretive country.

 

Yet, Mr Kim oozed confidence and charm when he met counterparts decades his senior - Chinese President Xi Jinping, 56, in March, followed by South Korean President Moon Jae In, 65, in April.

On June 12, the world will find out what kind of chemistry he will have with United States President Donald Trump, who touching 72 is more than twice his age, when they meet in Singapore. The landmark summit is their first meeting. And hopes are pinned on Mr Kim's willingness to abandon nuclear weapons and embrace a new era of peace.

It comes after a flurry of charm offensives and diplomatic reach-outs from Pyongyang that began in January, barely two months after Mr Kim declared the regime's nuclear programme complete in November.

North Korea has since declared a nuclear freeze - after two years of intensive testing culminating in a successful launch of inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland - and even blew up a nuclear site, where it conducted six nuclear tests, in front of a pool of international media.

  • WHO IS KIM JONG UN?

  • Mr Kim Jong Un is believed to have been born on Jan 8, 1984, the fourth of five known children of North Korea's second leader, Mr Kim Jong Il. His mother is Ms Ko Yong Hui, Mr Kim senior's fourth wife.

    Kim junior grew up in Pyongyang, cocooned in a life of privilege and luxury. Reports said he started driving at seven, and carried a pistol from 11.

    In the 1990s, he went to Switzerland to study at the International School of Berne.

    He returned to Pyongyang around 2000 and enrolled in the Kim Il Sung Military University. In September 2010, Mr Kim, who was a general by then, made his public debut at the country's third party conference.

    Soon after, he married singer Ri Sol Ju, with whom he fell in love at a concert. They have at least one child - a girl named Ju Ae. Some reports said they have three children.

    He was declared the "Great Successor" after his father died of a heart attack on Dec 19, 2011. He formally took over as the leader of the ruling Workers' Party in April 2012. His current official title is Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.

Mr Kim, the third generation of the Kim dynasty ruling North Korea since World War II, appears committed to putting aside his nuclear weapons in exchange for a security guarantee from the US. He has also managed to garner support from China, South Korea and Russia.

North Korea watchers and experts, however, question if his so-called "treasured sword" for regime survival can be bargained away.

They also warn of a wide gap between US demands of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation before sanctions can be lifted, and North Korea's preferred phased process with early benefits.

The outcome of the meeting, said Dr Go Myong Hyun of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, will depend on how much Mr Trump is willing to compromise.

"He can claim all the credit he wants when it happens, but, what's the price the US is willing to pay for prolonged denuclearisation? The trap in a stage-by-stage process is that with every stage, there will be tension between North Korea and the international community about whether North Korea has lived up to its end of the obligation," he told The Straits Times.

But, one thing is clear - Mr Kim is on a mission to make North Korea normal again, and to lift his country out of decades of poverty.

To do that, he must first normalise ties with the world's biggest superpower - the US.

Crushing economic sanctions imposed by the US and United Nations since 2006, when the regime conducted its first nuclear test, have stunted North Korea's economic growth, despite Mr Kim's recent efforts to build modernised cities, introduce special economic zones to attract foreign investment and relax rules to allow some form of a capitalistic market system.

"We are willing to have talks in an open-minded manner with anyone who wants peace."

NAME-CALLING

...he is surely a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician...

MR KIM JONG UN, North Korea's leader, in September last year, in response to US President Donald Trump's threat to "totally destroy" his country.


REAL THREAT

The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.

MR KIM, in his New Year's Day speech this year.

The country's gross domestic product is less than US$20 billion (S$26.7 billion) - a mere fraction of South Korea's US$1.4 trillion.

Analysts say Mr Kim, who has so far pursued simultaneous nuclear and economic development under a so-called byungjin policy, is under domestic pressure to improve the lives of 25 million citizens, knowing full well that any mass dissent could potentially destabilise his rule.

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies noted that the regime's nuclear pursuits backfired under Mr Trump's maximum pressure campaign, which stirred fears of a "fire and fury" confrontation last year.

"By improving the living standards of the people, (Kim) can maintain his legitimacy, political control and dictatorial survival. It's pursuing the same goal with different means," he told The Straits Times.

He added that Mr Kim, given his youth, would not want to rule a poor, backward country for another 30 years. "His primary motivation is that he wants recognition as the ruler of a normal country."

Mr Kim, who is married with at least one child, assumed power after his father, former leader Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.

Born the third son, he spent several years studying in Switzerland in the 1990s. Former classmates have described him as a quiet boy who was crazy about basketball - a love that later saw him strike up an unlikely friendship with NBA star Dennis Rodman.

Mr Kim returned to Pyongyang around 2000 to enrol in the Kim Il Sung Military University. He made his first public appearance during the third party conference held in September 2010, a day after being promoted to the rank of general.

Although he is the youngest son, Mr Kim became the preferred heir as he was deemed stronger and more "manly" than his brothers.

 
 
 

Painstaking effort went into establishing his legitimacy and consolidating his power, from gaining weight to look more imposing and sporting a much-talked about hairstyle in deference to his grandfather, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.

It did not stop there. Mr Kim purged his father's loyalists, executed his own uncle for treason and is widely believed to have had his estranged half-brother, Jong Nam, assassinated using the banned nerve agent VX in Kuala Lumpur.

North Korean defectors have painted their leader as cruel and brutal and with a violent temper.

That chilling depiction, however, did not square with television images of a smiling Mr Kim hugging and holding hands with South Korea's President on April 27 at truce village Panmunjom. He even joked about not "interrupting" Mr Moon's sleep any more, in reference to the North's suspended missile tests, almost always launched at dawn.

Mr Kim's international debut has been nothing short of dramatic. It continues on June 12. Mr Trump, tamping down expectations of a deal, has characterised the summit as a "getting to know you" meeting.

"I think this is what Kim Jong Un wants," said Mr Joseph Yun, a former US special envoy for North Korea policy. "He is the one who has got so far. He has come out onto a major foreign policy stage, so I think he wants to start slow."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2018, with the headline 'Leader out to make N. Korea normal'. Print Edition | Subscribe