Kim’s long black coat and hairstyle, reminiscent of his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, were viewed as a superficial effort to emulate the authority of his forebears.
It’s a marked change from the early days, when Joseph Yun, former US special representative for North Korea, remembers Kim as an object of ridicule.
“For a while, there was so much negative caricature of Kim Jong Un in South Korea and in China, almost making fun of him. It was very difficult for the international public — South Korea and America — to take him seriously,” he recalled.
That view quickly changed as the young Kim displayed a ruthlessness and decisiveness that belied his age.
Kim did not hesitate to purge or execute even those closest to him in a bid to tighten his grip on power. His powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek, once presumed to be Kim’s mentor, was executed in 2013 for “trying to overthrow the government,” according to a state media report.
Now, few question Kim’s authority, but some experts worry that his consolidated power could embolden him to take greater risks — and that, as Covid drives North Korea to become more isolationist, its leader will only become more dangerous.
The making of a leader
Kim Jong Un made his first public speech on the centennial of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth in April 2012 — one of the most important dates in North Korea’s calendar.
It was a marked departure from the style of his father Kim Jong Il, whose voice was barely heard in public.
The young leader stood at the podium switching his weight from one foot to another like a schoolboy might do, as he delivered a speech promising to uphold his father’s dying wishes to build a strong socialist country.
Less than one year later, in February 2013, Kim Jong Un conducted his first nuclear test — the third in North Korea’s history — a provocative move interpreted as Kim’s message to the world, specifically to the US, that he was to be taken seriously. Around the same time, Kim announced his “Pyongjin” policy to simultaneously develop its nuclear program as well as the economy.
Over the next few years, North Korea dedicated itself to developing its military capabilities, not limited to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Various short and medium range missiles were also tested, and three more underground nuclear explosions were detonated.
“The diversification we’re seeing in North Korea is puzzling considering the constrained resources in the country,” said Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “What we see is really more than 10, around 15, potential nuclear delivery systems under development. It’s really remarkable.”
Beyond developing the country’s military, Kim has also achieved a diplomatic victory that neither his father nor his grandfather could achieve in their much longer rules — a summit with a sitting American President.