Kim Jong Un, the Supreme leader?

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Andy Tay Kah Ping's picture

The motivation stems from Kim Jong Un’s repeated war rhetoric and the regime’s alienation by other countries.

Kim Jong Un, the Supreme leader?

Since becoming the Supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has engaged in war rhetoric, making threats that if executed, can gravely destabilize the regional stability in the Asia Pacific region. Despite issuing numerous deadly warnings and conducting several military exercises, Kim has failed to instil much fear in the South Koreans and Chinese who might arguably already been desensitised to his (empty) threats. Beneath the bellicose war rhetoric, Kim is in fact a wimpy leader who has weak control over its generals and is ineffectual in his management of North Korea, a far cry from his revered role as the Supreme leader of the Pyongyang regime. However, his recent behaviours are not completely irrational considering the constraints he is facing as the youngest leader in the dictatorship dominated regime. This offers the hope that he might change his management style and eventually, emerge as a more competent leader.

The Leader With No Political Substance

It is obvious that Kim is struggling to exercise political control in the Pyongyang regime. It is widely speculated that he lacks concrete influence over his generals and that the actual power resides in the hands of Jang Sung-taek, his uncle.1 Consequently, since taking over from his father, Kim has issued empty threats to increase production of uranium-enriched nuclear weapons, to declare a war with South Korea and to rain missiles on America.2 His persistent engagement with war rhetoric has only counterproductively exposed his vulnerability, motivating the major powers to drive him to submission. Leaders have traditionally misused nationalism to overcome the challenges associated with political transitions.3 The current leaders in China, Japan and South Korea are also guilty of using territorial disputes to distract their people from leadership problems and to establish national unity.4 Kim’s belligerent behaviour could be aptly interpreted as manifestations of his crippling political grip.

The Leader With Economic Short-Sightedness

Kim has also introduced lackluster economic plans for his country despite having a wealth of resources. The Pyongyang regime has an estimated US$6 trillion worth of rare earth metals (REM) deposited under its mountainous terrains.5 REM such as cerium are so widely used in high-technology products such as smartphones that demands for them have soared lately as China, the main supplier for REM, have restricted their exports.6 However, due to poor infrastructure developments, North Koreans have been unable to exploit the prosperity lying under their feet. In addition, having deserted by major powers, Pyongyang has, in desperation, engaged in economically unsustainable trades in nuclear weapons, counterfeits and drugs7 with Iran, another stubborn believer of ‘peaceful’ nuclear programmes.8 This decision would only alienate the regime further from international support. Evidently, Kim clearly lacks vision expected of a Supreme leader.

The Leader Who Perpetuates Social Injustice

The extensive use of propaganda in North Korea also exposes Kim’s feeble social control.9 Some (ridiculously) fabricated news include animals grieving over the death of Kim Jong Il, and global submission to the Pyongyang regime.10 It is reasonable to infer that the greater the degree of absurdity of these propaganda, the more helpless Kim is in trying to brainwash his people of his exceptional leadership. North Korea also fares poorly in providing information to its people. The country has negligible Internet presence and 80% of North Koreans see words of mouth as main and important sources of information.11 Information dearth severely prevents this society from advancing. Kim is also guilty for adopting a nonchalant attitude towards the deaths of his people who have allegedly practiced cannibalism for survival due to the prevailing food crisis.12 Kim’s callous disregard for the welfare of his people is unethical and the persistently slow developments in North Korea13 highlight his inability as a leader.

Not All Hope Is Lost

Truly, Kim has not demonstrated qualities we expect of a Supreme leader but it would be too pessimistic to say that all hope is lost. The world should recognise that resistance persists within rogue states and time is needed for fresh leadership to make progress. Myanmar and its current political developments are exemplary of this argument. It took the country nearly 30 years for its leaders to respond to callings from democracy and capitalism.14 Kim can make up for his mistakes, but with great internal and external pressure, it is necessary that he understands his leadership problems and rectifies them with immediacy.

Being Responsive

Kim needs to be a responsive leader. He should return to roundtable talks with the major powers and stay committed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. China which has traditionally resisted tough economic sanctions on North Korea is clearly frustrated with Kim and has for the first time, voted in the United Nations Council to impose additional sanctions on the rogue state.15 Kim must understand that the value of Pyongyang to China as a buffer state is dwindling16 and that by pushing China away, he has helped spur new international alliance much to his disfavour. Nonetheless, submission to foreign pressure may not be the panacea as the North Korean generals are influential and may exploit this to stir nationalism, raising the probability for an actual war. China can hence intervene to end Kim’s theatrical performance by facilitating his graceful retreat from the political stage and bridge the differences between Pyongyang and the United Nations. As a leader, Kim should realise that the fate of his empire hinges heavily on China’s support and he should learn to appreciate the concept of utilising retreat as an advancement tool illustrated in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.17

Encourage Capitalism

It is also paramount for Kim to diminish the power of his generals to avoid being their puppet. To accomplish this feat, he needs prudent economic policies to pull votes within the government and to win genuine support from the ground. Kim could work closely with its Southern counterpart, learn the ropes to achieve economic progress and be less concerned about Seoul’s desire for reunification. As illustrated by the movie ‘As One’ (2012), synergy can potentially emerge from stronger cooperation between these two sisters who share a love-hate relationship.18 The Kaesong industrial complex should also be re-open as it is a door for future investments.19 Although North Korea has a wealth of REM, businesses would logically avoid being subjected to the whims of the rogue state. Therefore, Kim has to provide clear signals to investors that businesses would be unaffected by his quarrelsome relationship with the world. The Kaesong project is one of the very few large scale foreign investments in North Korea, and businesses are paying close attention to its stability, weighing the costs and benefits before devoting resources to the country.20 To further reduce the power of its generals, Kim could also allow the middle class which has been adept in conducting entrepreneurial activities such as the sales of computers in black market to grow.11,21 These underground entrepreneurs should not be treated as threats but as workers who can contribute to North Korea’s economy and eventually, assist Kim to become a more competent leader.

Being Empathetic

Lastly, Kim needs to develop compassion for his people’s plight. North Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of social injustice that no respectable leaders should turn a blind eye to. The most serious case of human rights violation is arguably the food crisis in the nation.22 Millions of people continue to perish due to famine and Kim needs to solve the deadly flood, famine, and food (3 ‘F’s) problem. North Korea is a regular victim of floods which lead widespread hunger amongst its people, and hence embarrassing war rhetoric. It is hence strategic to invest in agricultural protection and developments.23,24 Furthermore, it is useful for Kim to relax the entry of international organisations such as Amnesty International who although may harbor political inclinations, bear genuine interests in serving the North Koreans. He should not be too suspicious of free lunches and their impact. A realization that human rights and developments are more precious than selfish pride would definitely make Kim a more lovable leader.

In conclusion, while Kim may behave like a wimpy leader now, his actions are not at all irrational, offering hope that he may logically change his management styles and eventually emerge as a stronger leader. Kim needs to form new friendship and to repair damaged ones. He should re-engage with China but be sure not to over rely on China which has its own shares of problems. Kim should also work more closely with Seoul and be less worried about reunification because the developmental gaps of Pyongyang with Seoul are too huge for reunification to be beneficial to its South counterpart.25 Kim is blessed with politically influential and supportive relatives, natural resources, and brainwashed citizens11 and now he needs a potent infusion of responsiveness, consistencies and empathy in his leadership to truly become the Supreme leader.


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