1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
PoliticsNorth Korea

North Korea: Kim Jong Un's decade in power

December 17, 2021

Since succeeding his father Kim Jong Il 10 years ago, the dictator has executed enemies, developed nukes, and sat down face to face with an American president. Now he must steer his country out of economic misery.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is applauded by military commanders in Pyongyang
Under Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has stepped up arms testing and now possesses intercontinental ballistic missiles and nukesImage: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP/picture alliance

Ten years after his sudden death, the North Korean regime is lavishing praise on former leader Kim Jong Il and playing up the achievements of his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, to further cement the young dictator’s grip over one of the world's most isolated nations.  

State-run newspapers published articles venerating Kim Jong Il and his achievements during his 14 years in power before his death in 2011, while art galleries in Pyongyang are showcasing his contributions to the nation.  

Friday's commemorations included calls for greater public loyalty toward his son and current leader, who is struggling to pull the country out of pandemic-related economic hardship.

"Economic recovery and modernization will be his biggest challenge going forward," said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow specializing in security issues at the Center for a New American Security. "But he will likely find ways to give himself political cover for any shortcomings or failures and instill a sense of responsibility  and patriotism in his people to work harder."

How did Kim Jong Un rise to power?

Kim Jong Il is reported to have died of a heart attack on the morning of December 17, 2011, as he traveled aboard his personal train. His funeral cortege drove through the snow-blanketed streets of Pyongyang on December 28, with Kim Jong Un walking alongside the hearse. 

North Korea-watchers at the time commented on the shock that was still evident on the face of the new leader, just 29 years old at the time, adding that while he was being groomed to take over from his father, it was clearly not anticipated that he would have to step into his role so soon.  

Kim Jong Un's decade in power has surprised many analysts, with many initially assuming that he was too young and too inexperienced to lead a nation faced with as many challenges as North Korea.  

The successor is now described in state media as the "great leader," a title that was previously reserved for his grandfather and founder of the North Korean nation, Kim Il Sung.  

Less than two years after taking power, Kim Jong Un had ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. It is also widely assumed Kim Jong Un set up the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

The leader then met face to face with Donald Trump, the then president of the United States, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. 

He has also managed to avoid the fate of many of the world's other dictatorships in recent years, of internal dissent, revolution and violent overthrow, largely due to his unrelenting control of all aspects of daily life within the nation's tightly guarded borders.  

How did Kim Jong Un sustain control?

Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain his grip on power "because of a combination of the regime apparatus," says Duyeon Kim.

The leader is, "Keeping the elites who help sustain a Kim family leadership system happy, and employing brutal practices of forced loyalty and eliminating threats through purges and punishments of officials working for him," she told DW.  

According to Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Seoul's Ewha Woman's University, the Kim regime has managed to stay in power for so long by "belittling Seoul, demonizing the United States, and touting national self-reliance."

"But Trump’s meetings with Kim contradicted the American threat theory, South Korea is more successful than ever and Pyongyang is increasingly dependent on China," he told DW. "What little prosperity the North Korean people have tasted correlated with international trade, and that allowed more information to get inside the country.  

"After the pandemic abates, the dictator’s dilemma of how to pursue economic growth while maintaining political control is likely to intensify for Kim," he said.

Will the regime come to an end?

Kim has made efforts to move away from his father’s "military-first" policy to improve the country's economy — and potentially stop North Koreans trying to defect for a better life elsewhere — but he has never neglected the armed forces.

Instead of focusing on a military with conventional capabilities, Kim quickly moved on to developing nuclear weapons and advanced missiles with which he could menace far more powerful rivals, including the US.  

Kim ordered the regime's third underground nuclear test, on February 13, and then a further three detonations culminating in what Pyongyang claims was its first hydrogen bomb, in September 2017. Analysts estimate that the leader has between 15 and 60 nuclear warheads at his disposal today.  

But more significant for Kim will be to navigate North Korea out of its post-pandemic crisis and map out a credible path for economic recovery.

"Even if Pyongyang chooses to isolate itself until the pandemic subsides, North Korea has proven before that it is resilient, having survived the harshest of famines in the 1990s, and China will always continue to help keep the country afloat," Duyeon Kim said. "I think we will see Kim Jong-un reign for several more decades if he can keep up his health."

Ex-North Korean to run for office

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea