Talk-show comedians and the tabloid press may delight in mocking Kim, but many of those who watch him closely are actually impressed. What are the things a dictator needs to be good at? You need to manage the system—the party structure, the military, the economy, and the security forces—in such a way that your people remain loyal. This is done by adopting policies that bring prosperity, if not to everyone, then to at least enough people; by artfully elevating those most loyal and able; and by demoting the able but disloyal. Threats to your power must be eliminated ruthlessly.
A dictator needs to know how to present himself in public, and at this, Kim III already excels. He has a deep voice and is a capable public speaker. “I have noticed in my viewing of him that he moves well as a politician,” says Bill Richardson. “He is a lot better than his father. He smiles. Goes and shakes people’s hands.” Daniel Pinkston, a deputy project director for the International Crisis Group, who studies North Korea closely, says, “I do not like dictatorships, but as far as being a dictator—given that system, and what type of person is needed to manage it, maintain it, and sustain it—he is a great dictator.”
A great dictator must offer more than an impressive voice and posture. He must be decisive and instill fear. In his first three years, Kim has removed the two men who posed the most serious risk to his rule. The first to go was Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army and a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Ri had been close to Kim II and had direct responsibility for protecting Pyongyang and, perhaps more important, the Kim family. He had been one of the stars of his generation. In July 2012, Kim III called a rare Sunday meeting of the Workers’ Party Central Committee politburo and abruptly stripped Ri of his duties. It was the first sure sign that Kim planned to run the show himself. After Kim’s purging, Ri vanished. His ultimate fate is unknown, but no one is expecting him back.
The second threat was Uncle Jang, who, being a family member and a far more powerful figure than even Ri, was far more emphatically dumped. Kim made a public show this time, demonstrating a more impulsive flair in such matters than his father, who was content to shoot errant generals quietly, to imprison them, or retire them to rural estates. The fall of Jang harked back to the old Soviet show trials and the flamboyant excesses of Saddam Hussein, who liked to get up onstage with a fat cigar before his assembled leadership and personally point out those who were to be taken from the hall and shot.
What exactly was Kim up to? It was crucial to clean house in the military, replacing older leaders loyal to his father with those primarily loyal to him, many of them younger men. This not only ensured that the military’s commanders were beholden to him but also infused the old Cold War-era ranks with more modern thinking and less resistance to change.
He has also initiated sweeping economic reforms. His father was leaning toward some of these in his later years, but the changes have been so aggressive that the prime mover behind them must be Kim himself. Most are designed to build North Korea’s economy on money, which seems an almost silly thing to say, since economies are by definition about money. Not in North Korea. In the nation’s past, the only path to prosperity was ideological purity. If you lived in a better apartment, drove a nicer car, and were permitted to live in the relatively affluent districts of Pyongyang, it meant you had the approval of the regime. Increasingly, North Koreans can better their lot by earning more money, as is the case throughout the world. Managers of factories and shops have been given financial incentives to do better. Success means they can pay their workers and themselves more. Kim has pushed for the development of special economic zones in every province of the country, with the aim of setting up internal competition and rewards, so that the fruits of success in one area no longer must be fully returned to the state. It is part of a general effort to kick-start productivity.
In the agricultural sector, Kim has also implemented reforms that have proved surprisingly effective. “He decided to do what his father was deadly afraid of doing,” says Andrei Lankov, the Russian Korea expert. “He allowed farmers to keep part of the harvest. Farmers are not working now as, essentially, slaves on a plantation. Technically, the field is still state property, but as a farming family you can register yourself as a ‘production team.’ And you will be working on the same field for a few years in a row. You keep 30 percent of the harvest for yourself. And this year, according to the first unconfirmed reports, it will be between 40 and 60 percent that will go to the farmers. So they are not slaves anymore, they are sharecroppers.”
There was no dramatic announcement of the change in policy, and few have noticed the turnaround. Chronic malnutrition remains a problem. But in 2013, according to Lankov, for the first time in about 25 years North Korea harvested almost enough food to feed its population.