In the wake of a disastrous rocket launch, North Korea’s newly-installed leader, Kim Jong-un, basked in the admiration of fawning crowds on Sunday as he delivered his first public speech. Kim’s address was supposed to have marked the end of a two-week celebration commemorating the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, but the speech was symbolic in its own right, as the supreme leader charted a course for his country and took ownership of his newfound responsibility. Kim Jong-un, somewhat uncomfortable in the limelight, fidgeted throughout his speech and bore more of a resemblance to a schoolboy reluctantly presenting in class than a head of state orating to thousands of his countrymen. Kim by and large kept his eyes downward, speaking with a fledgling, yet distinctive cadence and timbre unique to North Korean propaganda. The awkward delivery, however, belied the content of his speech—an extension of the bellicose rhetoric that was the hallmark of Kim’s father and grandfather. In spite of this, the young despot may prove to be the best chance to crack open the shell of this modern-day hermit kingdom. It therefore behooves policymakers worldwide to treat the new regime with a healthy dose of skepticism, but some optimism as well.
The most recent rhetoric from Pyongyang is hardly new. One veiled threat in particular, "Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolized by imperialists, and the era of enemies using atomic bombs to threaten and blackmail us is forever over," is clearly a shot fired in the direction of the United States. Ignoring how exceptionally comical this statement is in the wake of the 81-second rocket flight, the promotion of a “military-first” strategy is classic North Korean domestic policy and demonstrates Kim’s plans to stay the course chosen by his predecessors. In this regard, we could also expect future negotiations and deals to be scuttled by Pyongyang in response to perceived slights. Senator John McCain echoes this sentiment: “For 20 years now, we've been going through this Groundhog Day exercise—confrontation, followed by negotiations, followed by aid, followed by confrontation. I mean, it is remarkable how many times we've seen this movie….”
An editorial in the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times offered a more rose-colored analysis of the speech: “…the announcement itself [of the rocket] and the admittance of failure were seemingly signs of change brought by the new leader. Such signs of opening up should be encouraged by the world. … Positive feedback may encourage North Korea to hasten change, or if it is received coldly, it may retreat or stall without bearing any significant geopolitical progress.” The Chinese government’s optimism may seem amnesic and misguided in light of historical attempts to engage Pyongyang. After all, countless are the negotiations that ended only in bitter disappointment.
But to discount Kim Jong-un’s reign as merely an encore to the policies of his father and grandfather also ignores his upbringing in the post-Korean War era; Kim Jong-un’s worldview may sharply contrast with his father’s and grandfather’s. Kim Jong-il was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea and lived through the Korean War, and his father, Kim Il-sung, spent his formative years under Japanese occupation and eventually became a Soviet puppet. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, was born in the early-1980s and is believed to have been educated in Bern, Switzerland. In other words, the newest supreme leader of North Korea is the first to have lived a life free of bitter occupation and has even been educated in the West. Furthermore, the young Kim has yet to celebrate his 30th birthday and his youthful inexperience may be the key the Six Parties need to coax North Korea into compliance. Notwithstanding the most recent rocket test, Kim Jong-un could be more inclined to honor international agreements, provided he did not inherit the traditional distrust of foreign powers so prevalent in North Korean leadership.
It would be wise to not mistake Kim Jong-un’s youth for ignorance or lack of will, but he is an untested leader who struggles to craft his own legacy as well as appease the formidable cadre of political and military leadership left in his father’s wake. While Kim’s speech this past Sunday certainly affirmed his commitment to the military and the policy tack chosen by his predecessors, behind the veneer of belligerence is a young Korean with a fondness for American basketball who just might see things differently.
Christopher Mun is a consultant to the federal government. He received his MA in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.