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What’s behind the emergence of Kim Jong-un-ism?

The North is elevating its leader’s status, making him equal to his predecessors

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a lecture to commemorate the 76th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers` Party.(KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a lecture to commemorate the 76th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers` Party.(KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korea is moving to strengthen Kim Jong-un’s monolithic leadership through an ideology known as “Kim Jong-un-ism.” 

This new ideology -- named after the North’s leader as he marks 10 years in office -- was neither unprecedented nor unpredictable: Until now, Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism formed the ideological cornerstone of the reclusive country. But South Korean and US experts say Kim Jong-un-ism still has far-reaching implications.

At a recent parliamentary audit, the National Intelligence Service revealed that Pyongyang has begun using the term Kim Jong-un-ism internally, part of a strategy to establish an independent ideological system centered on Kim Jong-un. The appearance of the term coincided with the disappearance of propaganda idolizing Kim’s predecessors -- his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather Kim Il-sung.

“Kim is now ready to put his stamp firmly on the regime,” Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at a US nonprofit research institute called CNA, told The Korea Herald, adding that Kim has been consolidating his position as the supreme leader since about 2016 with the seventh Party Congress.

An enduring one-man rule
Kim Jong-un-ism appears to be a long-term strategy to ensure an enduring monolithic rule for Kim Jong-un by promoting his image as a progenitor of a fresh ideology.

“It is reasonable to view that Kim Jong-un has built his own independent ideology while mapping out his long-term vision and goals for his long-term seizure of power,” said Lee Sang-sook, a research professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security within the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Lee said Pyongyang’s steps to remove traces of its leader’s predecessors have laid the groundwork for Kim Jong-un’s long-term hold on power. In photographs of North Korea’s eighth Party Congress in January, the ever-present portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were absent from the backdrop.

Additionally, the party rules were revised at the meeting to “abstract Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism and put the ideology of Kim Jong-un at the forefront,” Lee explained.

At the congress Pyongyang also eliminated the term Songun, which refers to the military-first politics founded by Kim Jong-il, by modifying the preface to the party rules. The preface now stipulates “people-first politics as the basic political mode under socialism,” superseding Songun.

Experts viewed this move as the spadework for indoctrinating the North Korean people with Kim Jong-un-ism, whose core ideology is likely to be the people-first principle that Kim has frequently endorsed.

“North Korea highlights Kim Jong-un as the head of the party, who has established the people-first ideology in a new era, and proclaims that it will strengthen his monolithic leadership system,” Lee said.

Kim’s elevated status, equal to his predecessors
Kim Jong-un-ism also is in line with the outcomes of the eighth Party Congress, where Pyongyang conspicuously set up an institutional framework to raise Kim’s political status and make him the equal of his predecessors. At the party congress Kim Jong-un was elected as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, his late father’s title.

Also, Rodong Sinmun articles now refer to him as Suryong, or Supreme Leader, an appellation that until recently was reserved for his grandfather Kim Il-sung.

“This is corroborative evidence that shows Kim Jong-un has reached a status equivalent to that of the late leaders,” professor Kwak Gil-sup of Kookmin University said. Kwak has analyzed North Korea for the National Intelligence Service and affiliated organizations for over 30 years.

Kwak says Kim Jong-un-ism is the quintessential tool for Kim Jong-un to grab power. The young North Korean leader has sought power mainly by harnessing institutional measures, policy lines and the manipulation of leadership symbols.

But Kwak said Kim Jong-un-ism was not the start of an independent ideological system, separate from those of the current leader’s predecessors.

“As Kim Jong-un is the third-generation hereditary leader, he has no choice but to naturally seek changes while riding on the coattails of his predecessors rather than differentiating himself from them,” Kwak said.

The ever-present portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were absent from the backdrop at the eighth Party Congress in January. (KCNA-Yonhap)
The ever-present portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were absent from the backdrop at the eighth Party Congress in January. (KCNA-Yonhap)

Kim’s confidence in power, achievements
Pyongyang’s initiative to establish a distinct ideology is also a manifestation of Kim Jong-un’s confidence in his achievements.

“In some ways, the emergence of Kim Jong-un-ism is also a congratulatory gesture to Kim Jong-un for having not only survived as Pyongyang’s leader, but also exceeded the expectations of the international community,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and a former CIA analyst.

“This may also mean an even more emboldened Kim Jong-un.”

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, echoed similar views, saying Kim Jong-un-ism is a sign that Kim Jong-un is secure in his role.

“During his initial period in office, it was onerous for Kim Jong-un to suggest a ruling ideology that is discrete from the ones presented during the era of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”

When Kim Jong-un inherited control in December 2011 after the sudden death of his father, he was largely overshadowed by his predecessors. The following year, the Kim Jong-un regime presented “Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism” as the sole “guiding ideology” of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

“The completion of the state nuclear force in 2017 raised his authority within the North Korean leadership and served as an opportunity for Kim Jong-un to make a complete escape from the halo of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il,” Cheong said, adding that the completion of the nuclear force was a watershed for his leadership.

Why now? Economic challenges, expanded information access

Kim Jong-un-ism comes in time for the 10th anniversary of his ascension to power. But economic challenges have heightened the need to ramp up ideological campaigns to bolster Kim’s rule.

Gause, of CNA, raised the possibility that Kim Jong-un-ism is “tied to the legitimacy question which is under assault because of the failure in the economic plans.”

Kim Jong-un needs to play his cards right if he is to show his country that he is competent and has the right vision. Missteps in nuclear negotiations and the lack of economic progress have implications for his legitimacy.

The emergence of Kim Jong-un-ism could be linked to his goal of refocusing on economic growth while pulling away from or at least scaling back the country’s nuclear and missile programs.

“In order to do that without taking a major hit in terms of his legitimacy, he needs to have some other ideological elements that will mitigate the fallout of that shift because he will still be dealing with an economy that is heavily challenged,” Gause said.

Kim Jong-un-ism is also connected to the need to firm up ideological indoctrination and information, says Lee of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

According to Lee, Pyongyang sees a need to “solidify Kim Jong-un’s monolithic ruling system as it has become difficult to control the people’s thoughts amid the deepening of informatization.”

In a broader context, North Korea has stepped up its large-scale nationwide ideological campaign to wipe out “non-socialist and anti-socialist practices” since the eighth Party Congress this January.

People-first, state-first principles

Still, Pyongyang appears to be in the stage of fleshing out Kim Jong-un-ism. It is likely to embrace the long-established Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism, demonstrate Kim Jong-un’s achievements, and bespeak his outstanding leadership as differentiated from that of his predecessors.

Experts also shared the view that the core ideas of Kim Jong-un-ism are the people-first and state-first principles.

“The people-first principle is suitable for winning the hearts of the public, given that it highlights the people as the main agents of the revolution,” Lee said, explaining that Pyongyang also added on the concept of patriotism by proposing the state-first principle.

“That is, this is the logic that people recompense the leader’s pursuit for love for the people with patriotism,” Lee said.

In addition, experts say Pyongyang could use Kim Jong-un-ism to appease the people amid the economic downturn.

“The underlying intention is to soothe antipathy toward the leader that could arise in the face of the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic and economic sanctions by highlighting Kim Jong-un as a people-friendly leader,” Kwak said, adding that the ideology could also be exploited to shift responsibility to party and government officials.

Mark Tokola, vice president of the Korea Economic Institute of America, said Kim Jong-un-ism, likely centered on the people-first principle, is the leader’s policy choice rather than a means to his ideological ends.

Tokola dismissed the view that Kim Jong-un was creating a distinctive ideology or modifying the eponymous Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism.

“Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric and motivations are now the same as those of any dictator trying to stay in power,” Tokola told The Korea Herald.

But in the long run, Kim’s emphasis on the people-first principle could jeopardize the regime’s survival, which has been the top priority of the Kim family.

“I would agree that he is putting the regime’s long-term survival at risk by saying that its purpose is to improve the lives of the North Korean people,” Tokola said. “If he fails to do that, it would undermine the regime’s legitimacy.”



By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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