It’s been five years since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, whose demise was observed at monuments and on city center plazas across the nation Saturday. Here’s a look at five ways the country that has now been ruled by three generations of Kim — starting with grandfather Kim Il Sung — has changed since the ascension of its 30-something “respected marshal.”
The man himself
Kim Jong Un is in some ways a lot more like his charismatic and gregarious, albeit brutal and megalomaniacal, grandfather than Kim Jong Il. He has gone out of his way to milk that resemblance, right down to adopting his trademark haircut from a seemingly bygone era. While his father almost never spoke in public, Kim Jong Un has done so on any number of occasions, including a four-hour address at his ruling party’s congress in May. On the flip side, one of his most important moves to consolidate power — the execution of his powerful uncle and the purges that ensued — demonstrated both his personal independence and his willingness to employ the same kind of oppressive tools that were the hallmarks of both his father and grandfather. And, despite a short-lived friendship with former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman, he has yet to travel abroad or meet a foreign head of state.
Nukes, missiles and rockets
Turning North Korea into a nuclear power wasn’t Kim Jong Un’s idea — it almost certainly originated with Kim Il Sung himself — but it’s defined his first five years. Of the five nuclear tests North Korea has conducted, three have been under his watch and two, including its most powerful to date and its first of what Pyongyang claims was an H-bomb, were this year. Kim Jong Un’s North Korea has been sprinting to the finish line of a viable nuclear arsenal and the advanced missile technology needed to attack South Korea, Japan and the 50,000 U.S. troops it hosts, the key US military outpost of Guam and the US mainland itself. At the same time, and some argue for largely the same reasons, the North under Kim has also joined the space race, putting satellites into orbit and aiming to reach the moon within the next decade.
North Korea’s main motto under Kim Jong Il was “Military First.” Under Kim Jong Un, the focus is now on building more and better nukes and bolstering the national economy, in large part through developing science and technology. To suit his goals, Kim has shifted more power to the ruling party and to his Cabinet and put the nation on collective overtime with repeated “loyalty campaigns.” It remains to be seen how sustainable his two-pronged nukes-and-butter policy will be in the face of international sanctions and internal, systemic weaknesses. So far, it has been at least workable. The North is already a de-facto nuclear state and its economy, though fragile and no doubt underperforming, is showing small but persistent growth.
Fostering markets and entreprenureurs
Probably more out of pragmatic necessity than anything else, Kim Jong Un has allowed capitalist-style markets and entrepreneurialism to expand, invigorating the domestic economy and creating new revenue streams for the government, which profits by either taking a cut or by directly supporting such enterprises. Changes in farming policy that let individuals personally benefit from bigger harvests have boosted agricultural output. The relatively affluent capital of Pyongyang — home to the North’s most fortunate — has seen a significant increase in everything from taxis to coffee shops and streets stalls. But the rise of the “cash masters,” an empowered middle class more open to capitalist ideals, or just more determined to acquire material wealth, could prove to be a problem for Kim down the road.
Keeping the masses entertained
Kim Jong Un has on several occasions vowed to make North Korea a “more civilized” nation. His signature development projects include an equestrian center and sprawling water park in Pyongyang and a luxury ski resort near the port city of Wonsan on the east coast. He has tried to give his regime something of a softer face through the all-female Moranbong Band, which sings its odes to him in a decidedly pop, and vaguely titillating, manner. Kim also generated a major national sensation by ordering a Disney-quality update to the “Boy General” anime series originally commissioned by his father. On another major front, Kim has made a big shift toward sports — vowing North Korea will become a major international sports power — presumably as a means of bolstering health and national pride and providing the masses with a relatively innocuous diversion from their daily lives.