Korea Advisor

What do you get for the man who has the most dangerous inheritance on earth? Yesterday, as Kim Jong-un turned 29 (or possibly 28), North Korean state television broadcast a propaganda film showing the new “Dear Leader” driving a tank, riding a horse and inspecting troops. Filmed before Kim Jong-il’s death, it is believed that the broadcast was timed to illustrate the military’s support for their new commander and introduce him to a population still grieving for his father. In the outside world, information on Jong-un is similarly scarce, but one of the few who has an insight into the man with his finger on the nuclear button is American academic BR Myers. A professor at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, Myers has extensively researched the North’s cult of personality for his 2010 book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves And Why It Matters (Melville House), which the late Christopher Hitchens called “electrifying… finely argued and brilliantly written”. Here Myers talks to GQ.com about Kim Jong-un’s “mytho-biography”, the reality behind the propaganda and how worried we should be…

GQ.com: Should the world be worried about the new North Korean leadership?
B.R. Myers: The people who should really be careful are the South Koreans. We know from North Korea’s domestic propaganda that South Korea’s accomodationism is interpreted as a lack of guts and an unwillingness to defend the “Yankee colony”. By shrugging off two North Korean attacks in 2010, the South Korean public might well have conveyed a certain lack of resolve to the North. It really is quite strange here in South Korea. After Kim Jong-il died, you had South Korean government television announcers somberly referring to him by his formal title of “National Defense Council Chairman” even while the North’s TV announcers were vilifying the South Korean president Lee Myung-bak as a “traitor.” I would hope, then, that neither the South Korean nor the American government bends too far backwards in the next few months in a misplaced effort to gain the new leader’s trust. A certain firmness would be safer. In any case, North Korea simply cannot come down from its military-first pedestal. It is unlikely even to make tactical concessions on any front until after the South Korean elections in December.

Why wasn’t the North Korean propaganda machine better prepared for the very public fear and grief witnessed after the death of Kim Jong-il?
The question implies that it’s a bad thing for the regime if the people feel afraid and uncertain. In fact, fear helps the military-first regime rally the masses around it. The South Koreans felt comparably rudderless in 1979 after the dictator Park Chung Hee was shot and that made it easier for citizens to come to terms with the military coup that ensued. In any case, it would have been hard for Kim Jong-il to prepare the masses for the transition without admitting his very poor health, which could have resulted in power transferring too early to his son. In the end it all seems to have worked out well for the regime, because the masses finally got to know Kim Jong-un at a time when he looked less smug and pampered than usual. Having him walk alongside the hearse was a stroke of genius.

How much do we really know about Kim Jong-un?
Very little apart from his family background; even the amount of time he spent overseas is in dispute. The North Koreans know even less. After his formal debut at a party conference in September 2010, he appeared often in TV news reports of his father’s “on-the-spot guidance” visits to various workplaces, but he was never centre-stage. Often when the camera panned over to him, the voiceover would fall silent. By late 2011 the official media had begun praising him more extensively, but always in very vague terms, with no biographical details. Only since the New Year have the North Korean people begun learning about his life. So far the mytho-biography is shaping up to be a lot like Kim Jong-il’s: in other words, propaganda claims that he spent his teenage years studying his grandfather’s work, waiting plaintively for his busy father to come home from tours of the countryside and so on. As with Kim Jong Il, there’s an obvious effort to counter the public assumption that he was spoilt rotten. His mother has finally been publicly mentioned but not yet identified. The problem is not just that she was a Korean from Japan, but also that Kim Jong-il had always been depicted as a man too busy to start a family. The propaganda apparatus really has its work cut out for it.

Might Kim Jong-un be merely a figurehead?
We have no way of knowing how much power he really has. With Kim Il-sung, we were fooled right up until his death in 1994. Only afterward did we find out that he had devolved into a mere figurehead by the late Eighties. When you get right down to it, the question is not all that important, because we have no evidence of ideological factions inside the elite. There is no doubt bureaucratic rivalry, such as you find in any Western government, but there is no sign of this or that person wanting to take the country in a different direction. So even if Kim Jong-un is a mere figurehead, we are still going to have to treat him as if he’s in full control.

Will the change of leadership lead to North Korea becoming less isolated?
I don’t think the change of leadership will cause North Korea to open up in a political sense. The economy may liberalise further and there will likely be even more Chinese investment, but North Korea needs to maintain its distinct identity in order to justify its existence to its own people. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it’s a military-first, radically ethno-nationalist identity. If anything, economic reforms may well induce the regime to behave more recklessly in its foreign policy, so as to prove to its people that North Korea is more than just a backward version of the South.

Originally published by British GQ.