restricted access The Education of Kim Jung-un
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3 when north korean state media  reported in December 2011 that leader Kim Jong-il had died at the age of 70 of a heart attack from “overwork,” I was a relatively new analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. Everyone knew that Kim had heart issues—he had suffered a stroke in 2008—and that the day would probably come when his family’s history of heart disease and his smoking, drinking, and partying would catch up with him. His father and founder of the country Kim Il-sung had also died of a heart attack in 1994. Still, the death was jarring. While North Koreans wept, fainted, and convulsed with grief, feigned or not, Kim Jong-un, the twenty-something-year-old son of Kim Jong-il, reportedly closed the country’s borders and declared a state of emergency. News of these events began to filter out to the international media through cell phones that had been smuggled in before Kim Jong-il’s death. There had been signs before 2011 that Kim was grooming his son for the succession: he began to accompany his father on publicized inspections of military units, his birth home was designated a historical site, and he began to assume leadership titles and roles in the military, party, and security apparatus, including as a four-star general in 2010. In response to the death, South Korea convened a National Security Council meeting as the country put its military and civil defense on high alert, Japan set up a crisis management team, and the White House issued a statement saying that it was “in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan.” Back in Langley, I remember being watchful for any indications of instability, as I began to develop my thinking on what was happening and where North Korea might be headed under the newly named leader. Immediately after Kim Jongil ’s death was announced, the North Korean state media made it clear that Jong-un was the successor: “At the forefront of our revolution, there is our comrade Kim Jong-un standing as the great successor . . .” 4 Jung H. Pak What sort of person was Kim Jong-un? Would he even want the burden of being North Korea’s leader? And if so, how would he govern and conduct foreign affairs? What would be his approach to the nuclear weapons program that he inherited? Would the elites accept Kim? Or would there be instability, mass defections, a flood of refugees, bloody purges, a military coup? Predictions about Kim’s imminent fall, overthrow, or demise were rife among North Korea and Asia watchers. Surely, someone in his mid-20s with no leadership experience would be quickly overwhelmed and usurped by his elders. There was no way North Koreans would stand for a second dynastic succession, unheard of in communism, not to mention that his youth was a critical demerit in a society that prizes the wisdom that comes with age and maturity. And if Kim Jong-un were to hold onto his position, what would happen to his country? North Korea was poor and backward, isolated, unable to feed its people, while clinging to its nuclear and missile programs for legitimacy and prestige. Under Kim Jong-un, the collapse of North Korea seemed more likely than ever. That was then. In the six years since, Kim has collected a number of honorifics, cementing his position as North Korea’s leader. Kim has carried out four of North Korea’s six nuclear tests, including the biggest one, in September 2017, with an estimated yield between 100–150 kilotons (the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II was an estimated 15 kilotons). He has also tested nearly 90 ballistic missiles, three times more than his father and grandfather combined. North Korea now has between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons and has demonstrated ICBMs that appear to be capable of hitting the continental United States. It could also be on track to have up to 100 nuclear weapons and a variety of missiles—long-range, road-mobile, and submarine-launched—that could be operational as early as 2020. Under Kim, North Korea has conducted major cyberattacks and reportedly used a chemical nerve agent to kill Kim’s half-brother at an international airport. The Education of Kim Jong-un 5 The last six years have also seen Kim dotting the North Korean landscape with ski resorts, water parks, and high-end restaurants to...


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