Expert Insight on Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s Future

Fourteen years ago, North Korea’s calendar was changed so that time officially began in 1912—the birth year of Kim Il Sung, who ruled the communist nation from its founding in 1948.

Eric Sharfstein
January 30, 2012

The revamped North Korean calendar is but one example of the massive cult of personality built around Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 but is still, under North Korea’s constitution, its “Eternal President.”

“Kim Il Sung’s birth is sort of like B.C. and A.D. in the Western calendar,” says Charles Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences and an expert on the famously impenetrable country. “Cults of personality are North Korea’s greatest expertise and one of its very few exports. In the 1970s and ’80s, Ethiopia’s Marxist government brought in North Koreans to help choreograph parades, build monuments and even write songs about Communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.”

Armstrong, who has been to North Korea three times, has written nearly a dozen books on the two Koreas and currently is working on two more. Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1990, looks at the country’s foreign relations using material from the formerly inaccessible archives of East Germany, China and Russia, and A History of Modern East Asia is a general history of the region from 1800 to the present.

That makes him ideally placed to decipher what’s going on now that Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, has been elevated to leader following the death of his father in December.

Armstrong believes Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, will be primarily a figurehead at first. “Relatives and military officials will function as a kind of regency as Kim Jong Un consolidates his power,” he says.

“Over time, there has been a dilution of authority,” says Armstrong. “Kim Il Sung ran the country himself. Kim Jong Il was more beholden to interests in the party and the military. And Kim Jong Un will probably be less of a one-man dictatorship than either his father or grandfather.”

Armstrong points out that foreign experts—and North Koreans themselves—know very little about Kim Jong Un. He has never made a public speech.

His ascension to power comes at a critical time. Shortly before Kim Jong Il’s death, the United States and North Korea were moving toward direct negotiations, a process stalled since 2008; North Korea sought a nonaggression pledge from the United States, which in turn wanted North Korea’s nuclear program dismantled. Those talks are currently on hold during North Korea’s period of mourning.

Kim Jong Un also inherits tense relations with South Korea, made worse when the two nations exchanged fire in a November 2010 skirmish that Armstrong called the most serious clash since the 1953 armistice. Kim also must navigate North Korea’s complicated relationship with China, an ally that supports North Korea less out of shared political views than a desire for stability in the region.

Armstrong finds little reason to believe North Korea will become less isolated in any official way under its new leader, although the secretive nation recently allowed The Associated Press to open the first international news bureau in Pyongyang. There is no freedom of speech or press for its own citizens, cell phones cannot reach outside the country, and travel outside of North Korea is heavily controlled.

North Koreans caught with foreign movies are punished harshly. Kim Jong Il, however, had a tremendous collection of U.S. movies and loved the Friday the 13th series, James Bond films and anything starring Elizabeth Taylor, says Armstrong. And although radios and televisions are rigged to broadcast only state-controlled media, he also enjoyed CNN and other U.S. programming.

Still, some movies and other banned media are smuggled into the country, and some North Koreans obtain illegal foreign cell phones.

“While there is no government sanctioned opening up, there is a de facto opening up,” says Armstrong. “North Koreans get more information from the outside world today than they did a decade ago. That affects their views even if they can’t say so openly. And there is a growing gap between what North Koreans are told by the regime and what they believe.”