Analysis: North Korea after 10 years of Kim Jong Un: Better armed but more isolated than ever

  • Nuclear weapons dominated Kim’s first 10 years
  • North Korea better armed, but now more isolated
  • Kim’s challenge: balancing nuclear arsenal and sanctions
  • Kim must save the economy and raise the standard of living

SEOUL, Dec.16 (Reuters) – Ten years after Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korea is better armed but deeply isolated and more dependent on China, despite the young leader’s actions that have sparked – and shattered – hopes for economic transformation or international openness.

Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons defined his first 10 years in power, but analysts say the path has left him isolated and facing perhaps the greatest challenges to date.

These weapons can hamper the political breakthroughs needed to improve a shattered economy and prevent millions of people from starving to death, as ongoing lockdowns and anti-pandemic sanctions that have made it too dependent on China.

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Kim adopted a different style from his idiosyncratic father, seeking to “normalize” North Korea by institutionalizing and delegating more leadership; gain international respect through nuclear weapons and summits with foreign leaders; and displays of transparency and empathy towards improving the lives of ordinary citizens.

At times, this raised expectations of economic reform in the socialist state or changes in its relations with longtime rivals such as the United States and South Korea.

But systemic change did not materialize as Kim continued many of his father’s worst practices, from political prison camps and brutal executions to tight control over the economy and society.

“I think the experience of Kim’s reign for ordinary North Koreans was a moment of hope in those early years, followed by regression to the mean,” said Christopher Green, Korea specialist. at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Kim will have to make some tough decisions about whether to trade any of her arsenal for sanctions relief, or find other ways to boost the economy, such as through a wary relationship. vital with China or allowing more economic and social openness without losing political influence.

“(The sanctions) put an upper limit on what he can do with his economy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get to a point that is much more comfortable for people than where he is now.” said Robert Carlin, a former CIA officer. now with the Washington-based Stimson Center.

After the damage caused by the pandemic, calls for a controlled opening can once again be heard among the regime’s elite, but the challenges of turning the international situation in favor of North Korea are greater than ever, a Green said.

“Without a surge in foreign capital, the cause of economic reform is almost certainly doomed,” he added.


Under Kim, North Korea conducted four of its six nuclear weapons tests – including what appears to be its first hydrogen bomb – and developed a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles with range to strike as far as the United States. .

For Kim, this arsenal is the “precious sword” that will protect North Korea – and its rule – from external threats, while making the country an equal with other nuclear powers.

But it also brought North Korea to the brink of war with the United States in 2017, and even prompted the country’s partners in China and Russia to endorse strict UN sanctions.

Kim’s attempts to secure sanctions relief and a breakthrough in relations with the United States have led to historic and unprecedented highs with U.S. President Donald Trump, but talks have since stalled with Washington demanding that Pyongyang surrender some of its weapons before sanctions are relaxed.

Kim will likely continue to “play hard” in nuclear diplomacy, as the further development of nuclear weapons will increase his political influence and his bargaining power both in negotiations and in dead ends, said Duyeon Kim, of the Center for a. New American Security, based in the United States.

“We can expect to see him continue to shape his personal image and that of his country as normal, modern and advanced in all sectors, especially nuclear and economics, and even foreign affairs when the pandemic subsides.” , she added.

After throwing Sino-Korean relations to a historic low by prioritizing the development of nuclear weapons and missiles and then harshly criticizing Beijing for its support for sanctions, Kim managed to quickly reestablish ties, Zhao Tong said, a strategic security expert in Beijing.

China now accounts for the vast majority of North Korea’s limited international trade, and the current governments of the two countries share the goals of promoting socialist ideology and countering Western influence, Zhao said.

“Despite Kim’s preference for diversifying North Korea’s international partnerships, he is likely to continue to rely heavily on support from China and a small number of other like-minded countries,” he said. .


In his early years, Kim Jong Un experimented with economic reforms in order to generate the surpluses he needed to run the patronage networks that support the autocratic regime, Green said.

“But it seems the risks and opposition to it have grown too great over time, and he called it back,” he said.

A United Nations rights investigator has warned that North Korea’s vulnerable populations risk starving to death if the economic and food situation is not reversed.

The pandemic saw the government further tighten its grip on the economy, casting doubt on the future of black markets and the formal businesses that many North Koreans relied on.

Kim’s reign saw the proliferation of new technologies such as cellphones in North Korea, but activists say he simultaneously took a more high-tech approach to oppressive political surveillance and control as he seeks to prohibit and eradicate foreign influence and any suspicion of national influence. expression.

Still, it’s not too late for Kim to keep his promises to improve life in North Korea if he embraces diplomacy, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korean expert at King’s College London.

“Ultimately, Kim’s time in power could be defined by his ability to raise the standard of living of ordinary North Koreans once the pandemic is over,” he said.

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Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry

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