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Kim Jong Un’s decade of rule: Purges, nukes, Trump diplomacy

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North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump

NORTH KOREA: As Kim Jong Un marks 10 years in power this week, the world still doesn’t quite know what to make of the North Korean leader.

Is he the playful scamp who once gave an underling a piggyback ride after a rocket engine test? Or the Western-educated leader tearfully commiserating with his people’s economic misery? How about the global statesman, shaking hands with South Korean and American leaders? Or maybe the brutal pragmatist who had his uncle and virtual No. 2 — along with dozens of others — executed?

Since taking over supreme leadership a decade ago, Kim has presented many faces to an insatiably curious world, but while the image shifts perhaps the most telling way to consider Kim is through his persistent pursuit of a nuclear weapons program meant to target America and its allies.

An arsenal of as many as 60 nukes, by some estimates, with the means to add as many as 18 more a year, has allowed Kim to solidify domestic unity and achieve some measure of the global prestige he’s long coveted. It has also flummoxed Washington and its allies by building what Pyongyang claims is a credible deterrence against U.S. hostility.

Crushing U.N. sanctions over that weapons build-up and pandemic-related difficulties may be giving Kim the hardest moment of his rule, observers say, but those weapons are no closer to being wrenched away by outside negotiators than they were when Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, died on Dec. 17, 2011.

“Nuclear weapons are a magic wand for North Korea,” said Kim Taewoo, former head of Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. “North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries, but it controls the relationship with South Korea because it has nukes. If it wasn’t for its nuclear bombs, how could Pyongyang sit down for talks with the United States?”

In late 2011, many outsiders wondered if North Korea would survive with an untested, little-known 27-year-old in charge. Some predicted that Kim would push for economic reforms and possibly denuclearization because of his youth and childhood education in Switzerland. Some thought Kim might be a figurehead, relying on elderly officials installed by his father, and worried that North Korea could face political turmoil.

Instead, Kim orchestrated a spate of high-profile executions and purges, eliminating potential rivals and establishing the kind of absolute power enjoyed by his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather and state founder, Kim Il Sung.

The international diplomacy broke down in 2019 when Kim failed to convince Trump to ease tough U.N. sanctions imposed after his run of weapons tests in 2016-17. Kim has since threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal and introduce high-tech weapons targeting the United States and its allies.

According to a 2018 South Korean estimate, North Korea has 20-60 nuclear weapons. Experts say North Korea has the capacity to add six to 18 bombs every year.


Thursday, December 16, 2021 – 01:00

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