Happy anniversary, Supreme Leader! Three years after Kim Jong Un rose to power, North Korea on Wednersday marked the end of the mourning period for his father, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, with a ceremony in Pyongyang. Kim fils has a big act to follow because Kim pere turned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into an “economic giant,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported today. “His plan for building an economic power is now creditably carried into practice by supreme leader Kim Jong Un.”
For once, the news agency is being too modest about the accomplishments of Young Kim, who has already moved out of Dad’s shadow. Consider their different approaches to Hollywood. Kim’s father didn’t get an easy ride (if you’ve forgotten, check out some old episodes of 30 Rock, with Margaret Cho in a fat suit) but he didn’t humiliate a studio the way North Korean-backed hackers apparently have humbled Sony Pictures.
In the latest setback for Sony, the fourth-largest theater chain in the U.S., Carmike Cinemas, has decided not to screen The Interview, the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, Landmark Theatres announced the cancellation of the New York premiere of the movie, which had been scheduled to open on Thursday at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema.
It’s not just the hackers’ triumph over Sony that shows how much Kim Jong Un has out-crazied his dad. Since taking over, Kim has managed to bewilder even seasoned North Korea watcher L. Gordon Flake, chief executive officer of Australian think tank the Perth USAsia Centre. “If you had told me three years ago that I would look fondly back on the Kim Jong Il era as a time of relatively realistic policy, reliability,and stability, I would have thought you were crazy,” says Flake, former executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. However, “by almost every measure, the last three years have been more volatile, more unpredictable, potentially more dangerous, more irresponsible than [the time] of his father.”
Even the country’s best friend seems at wit’s end. China has long been North Korea’s best friend, with the government in Beijing keen on keeping an ally as a buffer between China and South Korea—and the U.S. troops stationed there. Chinese leaders were close with Kim Jong Il, who visited China seven times from 2000 until his death in late 2011. A search on the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reveals plenty of photos of a happy Kim Jong Il smiling with Chinese dignitaries, including then-President Jiang Zemin and his successor, Hu Jintao.
The current leaders, however, aren’t exactly close. Xi Jingping traveled to Pyongyang back in 2008, when he was China’s vice president, and met Kim Jong Il. Since Xi took the top job in Beijing, though, getting together with the new man in charge of North Korean hasn’t been a priority. China used to have someone it could work with in Pyongyang: Jang Song Thaek, the second-most-powerful person in the country. A year ago, though, Jang was purged by his nephew, Kim Jong Un, vilified as “despicable human scum” by the North Korean media, and executed for treason. “Now that he’s gone,” says Flake, the Chinese “have little input about what’s going on in North Korea.”
Jang was just the highest-profile member of the old guard ousted by Kim Jong Un in the past three years. “Kim Jong Un essentially purged pretty much all the important dignitaries of his father’s era,” Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, told Bloomberg Television today. “Of the seven people who walked next to the coffin of Kim Jung Il in December 2011, none—I mean, none—is now in a position of power.” They are either dead or have disappeared.
Relations with China haven’t recovered. To understand just how bad ties between the longtime allies have become, consider that on the third anniversary of his rise, Kim still hasn’t visited Beijing or other Chinese cities. China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang haven’t had Pyongyang on their travel schedules, either. Instead, China is warming to South Korea. In a major snub, Xi visited Seoul in July, the first time a Chinese leader had gone to Korea’s South before going to the North.
An even more isolated North Korea is a scary thing, especially if its economy doesn’t desperately need foreign aid. Even as he has alienated one of the regime’s only friends, Kim Jong Un may be making some progress in ending North Korea’s record of famines and near famines. “He is beginning to reform the country in a way very similar to China of the late 1970s,” according to Kookmin’s Lankov. Thanks to agricultural reforms that began last year, “North Korea is now producing not a lot of food but almost barely enough to feed itself, which is a very big success for such a country.”
That doesn’t bode well for attempts by the U.S. and others to curtail the North’s nuclear program. “I have not seen any indication, in word, reference, or deed, back channel, that there is any flexibility in North Korea on the nuclear issue,” says Flake of the USAsia Centre. “Zero. It’s gone.”