27-year-old Kim Jong Un’s ascendance to power a decade ago generated much speculation and skepticism about the future of North Korea. He had made his official debut only 15 months before, and little was known about him besides his education overseas and what could be gleaned from his public appearances with Kim Jong Il from the time of his first public appearance to his father’s death. The young successor’s seeming inexperience and fragile support base in North Korea’s leadership circles were widely viewed as compelling enough reasons why a country that was already battling economic hardship at home and diplomatic isolation abroad was doomed to collapse. Projections were rife among North Korea watchers, including in South Korean intelligence, about a collective leadership system where a small group of advisers would support Kim Jong Un while the young leader grew into his formidable new role.
Ten years later, not only has North Korea survived under the stewardship of Kim Jong Un, but Kim has emerged as a bold, confident leader who managed to rise to the same ranks as his forefathers, despite myriad vicissitudes. There was no collective leadership system, at least not in the sense that many North Korea experts meant in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. There are persistent questions about the stability of the Pyongyang regime, and for good reason: The North Korean leader himself has openly and repeatedly acknowledged the country’s economic difficulties. North Korea’s frequent high-level personnel shuffles in the party in the first half of 2021 only fueled outside observers’ concern about the goings-on in the top leadership echelons. Yet despite prolonged international sanctions and the near-two-year self-imposed national lockdown to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 – a combination that some feared may bring North Korea’s crippled economy to a crisis – the country keeps soldiering on. And in all likelihood, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea will muddle through, which makes it a force to be reckoned with, whether we like it or not.
In that vein, there are questions worth examining as we mark the first decade of Kim Jong Un’s leadership. How did Kim rise from an enigmatic young successor to the North’s most powerful man? What are the defining traits of his leadership? Perhaps most importantly, what does our experience with Kim Jong Un tell us about how he may steer his country in the coming years?