Is Kim Jong-un staggeringly confident, or do his behaviours and travel itineraries betray personal neuroses and structural fears? The short answer is that it depends on the issue under discussion.
Let’s take the economy for starters. Like a shrimp rediscovering its appetite after an awful oil spill, the North Korean economy appears to be improving, or so argue a number of indicators. Several smaller dams around the Huichon behemoth are coming online, meaning there is more power in Pyongyang, where the construction boom does not appear to be slackening. Although little headway appears to have been made in terms of actual drill bits biting into rock, North Korea does not seem to have problems attracting mineral exploration from Mongolian firms, including for offshore oil. The country also sits upon a perception that it is a potential rare-earth superpower. (This perception, by the way, has yet to be fully explored as truthful or not, although my colleagues and I are working on some deep-structure documentation on the matter.) So in spite of sanctions, rocky public discourse with China, and the ever-present possibility of the US Department of Treasury tightening the clamps on the country’s international financial flows, Kim Jong-un may indeed have cause to smile when he looks at things in this sector.
However, when it comes to his recent trip to Mount Paektu, I think a more cautious assessment is in order. In a working paper I published last month with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, I argued that Kim Jong-un and his handlers are actually rather nervous about his fragile domestic political legitimacy.
The execution of Jang Song-taek was never meant to, and could not, permanently anchor a culture of fearful obedience to the Kim family; ongoing coercive and persuasive pressure is needed. Moreover, the personality cult does not axiomatically replenish itself. There has been a huge effort made, therefore, to associate the young and inexperienced Kim with his father and grandfather in their respective periods of (allegedly politically experienced and militarily brilliant) youth. If Kim Jong-il was helping to run the Korean War at age 11 or unleashed the “Songun revolution” at age 18, the logic goes, then Kim Jong-un can run the Party, the National Defense Commission, the consumer economy, musical productions, the “outer space program,” the ever-important monument-and-memorial-paintings-and-statues sector, and foreign policy simultaneously at the ripe old age of 30. The same logic is being used for the rather delicate elevation of his younger sister into positions of high esteem and bureaucratic clout, though at less of a fever pitch.
So his trip to Mount Paektu makes imminent sense: He is simply trading on his only major asset, which is his bloodline, elevating it (and his physical resemblance to his grandfather, whose weight also yo-yoed over time) over all else. This is about as simple as it gets.
But I think we have to move beyond simply gasping, guffawing, or gnawing on the images produced at Paektu’s mighty and blustery summit. (Something, after all, needs to be left for political geographers who write about “landscapes of charisma” and North Korean volcanoes.) We need to think for a moment about Kim Jong-un’s itinerary in the context of recent news from North Korea’s northern frontier, and Kim’s pending (shall we say “probable”?) visit to Moscow.
Much as North Korean propagandists might like us to believe otherwise, Mount Paektu does not exist in some parallel universe; it spreads along the border with China and is in fact half-Chinese. More to the point, the mountain is also part of Ryanggang province and is relatively close to the resort town of Samjiyeon and the gritty border city of Hyesan.
If Kim Jong-un wanted to put on a show of real confidence which indicated he had matters under control — particularly in the realm of border security, where he is said by some sources to be extremely active — the place to do it would be Hyesan, and not Mount Paektu. But instead, Kim Jong-un left Paektu and turned up next (and in short order) at the east coast city of Wonsan, happily huffing down his self-prescribed nicotine and being photographed in front of an orphanage with the world’s most unsubtle inscription over the door: “Thank you, Respected General Kim Jong-un!”
In other words, Kim Jong-un, clearly enamored of flying around the DPRK, very likely flew from Pyongyang to Samjiyeon, was somehow conveyed to the top of Mt. Paektu, and then flew from Samjiyeon to Wonsan. In no case did he travel, nor has he ever apparently traveled to Hyesan. Perhaps the city is too loaded with smugglers and illegal activity for his retinue to encourage him to set foot there, or perhaps the North Korean security state really believes all the smoke it has been blowing for the past three years about assassins and vandals prowling around the Sino-Korean border.
In over three years of ostensibly governing North Korea, Kim Jong-un has yet to set foot in Sinuiju, Hyesan, Musan, Namyang, Onsung, Chongjin, or Rason. The farthest North he appears to have made it (with the exception of the Samjiyeon/Paektu bubble, into and out of which he can take his private jet) is Kanggye.
This is not the itinerary of a politician, and certainly not the behaviour of a confident dictator. The irony is that his grandfather used to turn up in these northern cities, spending hours in epic rants about corruption and inefficiency, going on long and windy tangents about the need for more rabbit breeding in elementary schools across the country. (Yes, this was the solution to the age-old “food problem” given by Kim Il-sung in a speech in Chongjin in 1980; for some reason it never seems to have worked.)
But Kim Jong-un, in spite of all the effort to resemble grandfather physically — down to the large folds on the back of his neck and the reverse-engineering of statues of Kim Il-sung to look more like himself — nevertheless lacks the original dictator’s confidence and freedom of movement within the country over which he allegedly rules with an iron fist.
One clue can be found in the recent hour-long press conference that focused on North and South Korean intelligence operations in Dandong, which I covered here and which Stephan Haggard also analyzed. One of the core accusations made during that strange event was that South Korean spies were maneuvering in Manchuria to kill Kim Jong-il on one of his many train trips into the PRC in 2010-2011, doing so presumably absent any constraints from the Chinese comrades on whose territory they were operating. China hardly needs yet another signal to confirm that Kim Jong-un will not be taking his first foreign junket to Beijing, but I thought this was crystal clear: “We don’t trust you,” the North Korean state media was saying to Beijing in that press conference, “to keep our precious leader safe.”
A colleague of mine once told me that on Kim Jong-il’s train trips around the northeast of China in 2010-11, the Dear Leader’s feces were hoarded by the North Koreans as a kind of state secret, since they didn’t want Chinese intelligence to be able to do any type of test relating to the man’s failing health.
This is the kind of leadership, security system, and entourage we are dealing with. Wondering aloud about “opening up and reform” n North Korea seems particularly silly when it seems to have such a difficult time merely taking care of the basic things that heads of states are charged with, like allowing the leader to flush a toilet without a special investigation being called while on the occasional foreign trip. And yes, progress can certainly be made on Special Economic Zones and Economic Development Zones absent the Midas touch of a Kim Jong-un on-site inspection, but why should they be denied even the glancing fingertip of the alleged institutional creator, whose job it is not simply to show up and grin, but to assure that the model enterprise in question is well-supplied and politically safe?
The groundwork has clearly been laid for a Kim Jong-un trip to Moscow in early May. However, the aftermath of the Paektu visit and Kim Jong-un’s ongoing confinement to several plush pockets and well-bombarded testing sites do not inspire confidence that the young man will take the trip after all, assuming his health is up to it in the first instance.