My response: Kim Jong-un reflects the culture and values of North Koreans themselves. He is the head—officially, Marshall—of a brutal, archaic system of government that demands allegiance. He also enjoys popular support among the educated classes living in Pyongyang, where there are, in fact, people who are prospering.
“Brian Myers, a professor at Dongseo University, in South Korea, says that he routinely invites defectors from the North to his graduate-school classes, and that in recent years his South Korean students, expecting familiar tales of starvation and woe, have been surprised to hear from some who describe North Korea as a ‘cool place,’ one in which they wish they could have remained. “My students are always disappointed to find this out.”(1)
Kim Jong-un reminds me of a five-year-old child; he believes he is at the center of the universe because, given doting parents and family, he’s treated that way. What most children eventually learn is that they share their throne with countless others. Not so with Kim. His legions exist solely to serve him. He is an egocentric brat with the resources of a kingdom willingly sublimated to his out-sized appetites.
What we do know of Kim Jong-un that does not stem from his flirtations with former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman is that he is not protected as much as he is isolated. All his interactions, either as a child or at the schools he attended in Switzerland, were either arranged or highly supervised. Access to Kim was practically nil. His father, Kim Jong-il, whose own excesses—including girth—are not only matched but exceeded by his youngest son—once proclaimed that no one was allowed to approach any member of his family without his written permission.(2)
The origins of North Korea’s guiding philosophy are, apparently, not rooted in communism but in a belief in Korean racial superiority.(3) This passionate, military-first state reveres Kim for his saber-rattling at the “Yankee jackals.” (I wonder if the phrase “running dog lackey” will soon reappear?)
In the West, personality cults such as those extant in North Korea are not taken very seriously. An assiduous Western press offers familiar stories depicting the country’s brutal nature without any insight beyond their own political bent, that is, liberal or conservative. This leads to simplistic explanations of the North Korean populace’s 60-year allegiance to the Kim regime. Yet history, with Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany and Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia, has already shown us that a dictator can act, with overwhelming support, to extremes unheard of in their right-wing texts.
The only consistent rhetoric I’ve heard or read coming from North Korea is that which depicts the United States as evil and Kim Jong-un as the man ordained to protect its people. What is understated but, in my view, still predominant, is Pyongyang’s ambition to unite both sides of the 38th Parallel. To understand North Korea, therefore, is to understand this as the ultimate goal.
(3) The Cleanest Race by Brian Reynolds Myers, 2010, Melville House