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5 Years Into His Regime, Who Is Kim Jong Un?09:34

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un waves from a balcony of the Grand People's Study House following a mass parade marking the end of the seventh Workers Party Congress in Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on May 10, 2016. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)closemore
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un waves from a balcony of the Grand People's Study House following a mass parade marking the end of the seventh Workers Party Congress in Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on May 10, 2016. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Jong Un has been in power for five years, but the North Korean leader remains something of a mystery.

He has purged military and Communist Party leaders and continues to conduct nuclear tests, two of them this year. Kim succeeded his father and grandfather as ruler of the country.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Andrew Nathan at Columbia University about the North Korean dictator.

Interview Highlights: Andrew Nathan

On North Korea's society and political system

"As the third generation of, which is kind of crazy to us, dictatorship, and he's inherited that system, he probably believes in the system even though he was schooled overseas. And yet, even if he didn't believe in it, there's literally no way out of it — he can't reform I think probably never say never, but I doubt he has anyway of reforming the system without having the system collapse because the rest of the world around him is in that kind of modern type of political system, whether it's China or South Korea.

Another thing to know is that he's very young, and Korean society tends to respect old people. So this is a strike against him — he has to be really strong in order to tame everybody around him.

I suppose a third thing to think about is that North Korea's a society of scarcity. The regime survives through a very strict system of stratification where the military and the political leadership, but especially the military which is really the pillar of his power is privileged. And other people are doing very badly — for a period of time, there was literally a famine. And now most of the population is just extremely poor. So the system survives partly by the fear of those who have enough to eat and have warmer apartments being purged, and the others cannot rebel because there's a privileged roof on top keeping control."

"He's very young, and Korean society tends to respect old people. So this is a strike against him — he has to be really strong in order to tame everybody around him."

Andrew Nathan

On the Kim's appearance

"They're the three generations of Kim's family and they're presented in North Korean propaganda as something god like. And there's a mystique that is handed down from father to son to grandson. And so to make that work, the propaganda people have groomed him to look like his father and even more so look like his grandfather...

It's a bit akin to some kind of religious sect I suppose, where there're some magical qualities. And if you read the North Korean propaganda, this is what they claim, 'Our great leaders descended from our previous great leaders,' and have this magic quality and his leadership is going to make us all winners."

On whether he will actually use a nuclear weapon

"My rational calculus is that he's using these weapon system to deter what he thinks is an aim by the U.S. and South Korea to cause his regime to collapse, especially the U.S., less so South Korea, that the U.S. wants to use either military force or political subversion and propaganda to make the regime collapse, which would lead to the end of him in the same way as Gadhafi, and so he's using this as a deterrent that is not intended to be used."

Guest

Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University.

This segment aired on September 14, 2016.

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