10 years at helm, Kim Jong Un’s nukes are still ‘magic wand’

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.

A think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency said in a 2016 report that Kim executed or purged about 340 people during the first five years of his rule. That included the 2013 execution of his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and the 2012 purging of military chief Ri Yong Ho, both of whom helped shepherd Kim into power.

Kim also set aside his father’s trademark "military-first" policy, restored the ruling Workers’ Party’s traditional control over the army and engineered small yet gradual economic growth in the first several years.

Nukes, however, have been a constant.

Kim has staged an unusually large number of weapons tests. And four of North Korea’s six nuclear test explosions and all of its three intercontinental ballistic missile tests have happened during Kim’s rule.

Kim’s big nuclear moves likely quieted those in the military’s old guard who were dissatisfied with Kim’s push to weaken their political clout, said Yang Wook, a military expert who teaches at South Korea’s Hannam University.

In late 2017, Kim claimed to have nuclear missiles capable of reaching the American homeland. In 2018-19, he engaged in ambitious nuclear diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump, holding the first summits between the two wartime foes and also meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"Nukes have greatly enhanced Kim’s diplomatic standing abroad. Domestically, they’ve also served as a great propaganda tool to promote the legitimacy of his government and the image that the supreme leader is striving to build an indomitable nuclear power state," Kim Taewoo said.

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.

Kim can be seen as simply carrying forward a national nuclear ambition that stretches back to the 1950s, when Kim Il Sung established an atomic research institute and struck accords with the Soviet Union to receive nuclear training. Kim Jong Il, who succeeded Kim Il Sung as leader in 1994, nurtured the program by overseeing the country’s first atomic and long-range rocket tests.

But Kim Jong Un’s personality has also likely added to a more aggressive pursuit of weapons tests, said Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst with South Korea’s Korea Institute for Military Affairs.

"He’s a young leader and likely wants to show off his strength to send a message: ‘Don’t look down on me because I’m young,’" he said.

Kim will never abandon nukes, the core of his family’s power, no matter how severe the economic difficulties his people face from sanctions, said Jung Chang Wook, head of the Korea Defense Study Forum think tank.

"The Kim family would lose its power, so he can’t give them up," he said.

China and Russia have covertly financially supported North Korea to prevent U.N. sanctions from causing "crippling" effects in North Korea, according to Kim Taewoo, the analyst.

During the pandemic, with nuclear diplomacy deadlocked, Kim Jong Un has been hunkering down and calling for stronger public loyalty to him. Last October, South Korea’s spy agency said North Korea was promoting the ideology of "Kimjongunism," something his father and grandfather did, and removing portraits of the previous leaders from public places.

"Kim Jong Un is trying to fly his own colors (and highlight) things that symbolize his own era, not the authority of the late leaders he’s been leaning on," said Seo Yu-Seok at the Seoul-based Institute of North Korean Studies.