How Kim Jong-un Advanced North Korea’s Military in a Decade

In Brief

How Kim Jong-un Advanced North Korea’s Military in a Decade

Kim Jong-un’s first ten years as North Korea’s leader were marked by economic failures, halting nuclear diplomacy, and a steady ramp-up of military power.

What were the successes and failures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s first decade in power?

After coming to power in December 2011, Kim consolidated his position by replacing the military and government officials that his father, Kim Jong-il, had appointed to aid his transition to leadership. He brutally eliminated potential rivals such as his uncle and half brother and punished perceived insubordination. Kim also regularized the governing mechanisms of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) by restoring a schedule for plenums and conferences, which are now the main instruments of governance and leadership.

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Kim’s primary accomplishments were mostly on the military side, particularly in ballistic missile development. Kim established North Korea’s nuclear program as the principal legacy of his grandfather and father and pursued byungjin, simultaneous military and economic development, as the primary ideological foundation for his rule. He highlighted these military accomplishments more following North Korea’s failed summit diplomacy with the United States and South Korea in 2018 and 2019.

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Kim’s primary failure was his struggle to revitalize the economy. Initially, he ushered in economic progress based on what North Korea expert Andrei Lankov describes as “reform without opening.” But North Korea’s economy then faced setbacks due to the combination of external sanctions in response to the country’s military development and internal economic retrenchment in the face of the pandemic, sanctions, and natural disasters.

How have North Korea’s nuclear capabilities changed under Kim Jong-un?

North Korea has established both credible fission and fusion capability and advanced its ability to deliver nuclear weapons at all ranges using a variety of ground-, rail-, and sea-based platforms.

In January 2020, North Korea announced its aspiration to continue its nuclear and missile development. Rather than working toward “complete denuclearization,” as laid out in the 2018 Panmunjom and Singapore Declarations, North Korea has pledged and redoubled its commitment toward “attaining an advanced capability for making a preemptive and retaliatory nuclear strike.”

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Following the failure of the February 2019 summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, it has been impossible to reestablish a sustained negotiating process. The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to revive U.S.-North Korea negotiations despite difficulties in mending inter-Korean relations.

Has Kim differentiated his rule from his father’s and grandfather’s?

Kim has gradually moved from ruling under the shadows of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, and father to claiming the title of central leader (suryong) based on his own accomplishments. The regime has sustained a tradition of requiring political loyalty as an essential condition for internal advancement, and Kim has subordinated the government, WPK, military, and security services to his rule. In this respect, he has extended and reconsolidated Kim family rule—relying on his sister Kim Yo-jong for critical support—rather than deviating substantially from the foundations of North Korea’s governing system. Kim has emulated the policies, leadership style, and fashion of Kim Il-sung, consciously evoking memories of his rule.

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Kim Jong-un waves to a crowd of North Korean military leaders.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un greets military officers in a photo shared by a North Korean news agency in July 2021. KCNA/Reuters

However, both Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il faced a major conundrum; they pursued paths for economic reform despite those efforts being circumscribed by the need to sustain political legitimacy. Reform efforts, such as the designation of fifteen special economic zones around the country and decentralization in the agricultural sector, have ultimately been limited by both regime-sustainability concerns that resulted in retrenchment and reassertion of centralized government control over the economy. To some degree, these parallel approaches illustrate the intractability of the North Korean dilemma: economic reforms are necessary for regime survival but also need to be subordinated to regime survival.

Has Kim’s approach toward the United States evolved over the past decade?

The most dramatic development during Kim’s first decade of rule was his pursuit of summit diplomacy with the United States, China, Russia, and South Korea, including an unprecedented three meetings with Trump. But the impact of Kim’s summit diplomacy has been mixed.

The WPK’s own review of its accomplishments at a conference in January 2020 referenced “a dramatic turn in the balance of power between [North Korea] and the US . . . thereby wonderfully demonstrating the dignity and prestige of our state,” and hailed the “joint declaration that assured the establishment of new [U.S.-North Korea] relations.” But it failed to mention denuclearization. With North Korea’s assessment that the United States is unlikely to change its “hostile policy” toward the country and Trump no longer in the White House, the prospects for easing U.S.-North Korea mistrust through substantive negotiations remain bleak.

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