Kim Jong Un: The fear and the unknown

Nuclear scare made worse because world can't tell if dictator is serious

Like his father Kim Jong Il, North Korea's new young leader Kim Jong Un is viewed by much of the outside world with a mix of incomprehension, ridicule and fear.

Early last month, people were shaking their heads in bemusement at photos of Kim partying with flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang after they watched a basketball game together.

One month later, they're wondering if he might be on the brink of tipping the Korean peninsula into a catastrophic conflict.

The current crisis, with its nuclear threats and Kim's lurid exhortations to his troops to "break the waists of the crazy enemies and totally cut their windpipes" has placed the young leader in the global spotlight.

But while more of a public personality than his introverted father ever was, Kim remains an enigmatic figure, especially on a personal level.

He's young, but it's not known how young - reports range from 28 to 30. He has a stylish, attractive wife, but how many children he has or what sex they are is a mystery.

His apparent affection for amusement parks and Disney characters sits oddly with his position as supreme commander of the world's fifth-largest army with an emerging nuclear arsenal.

An often-used media qualifier, and one that has taken on an ominous ring in recent weeks as tensions between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington have soared, is "inexperienced".

While Kim Jong Il was well groomed before taking over from his father - founding leader Kim Il Sung - Kim Jong Un had barely warmed the successor's chair when his father died in December 2011.

And after less than 16 months in the job, he has taken his country to the brink of conflict in the first crisis he has faced.

For Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea expert and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, Kim's personal inexperience is worryingly matched by the outside world's inexperience in dealing with him

"I think we still don't know what he's doing, to be honest," Mansourov said.

"Although Kim Jong Il practised brinkmanship all the time, there was a record of him stepping back from the brink. We knew basically where his limits were, where his brakes were and what buttons to push to keep him behaving.

"With his son, we don't have a track record yet. We don't know what his limits are, how far we can push him or whether he has any brakes."

In South Korea, which has more experience than anyone of North Korea's mercurial behaviour, analysts say that what others see as reckless "adventurism" on Kim's part may be well-calibrated pragmatism.

"Kim only had a short time to prepare for leadership, which meant he had to move all the faster and more aggressively when it came his way, to secure his control on the power elite," said Chang Yong Seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification at Seoul National University.

"It's not so unusual. Kim Jong Il was still solidifying his status as successor when he declared a semi state of war at the height of the first crisis over the North's nuclear programme in 1993-94."

Because the inner workings of North Korea's regime are so opaque, there have inevitably been questions as to whether Kim is really in charge - or is just a puppet manipulated by a coterie of top generals and officials.

Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, dismisses such speculation.

"I believe he has shown himself to be in full control of the party and the military," Yang said, pointing to Kim's "resolute" and even ruthless purge of top officials after he came to power.

"It's true that he's surrounded by a group of experienced mentors, but that doesn't make him weak. He's making the decisions on important state affairs. The system has been always like that."

Where, then, is he taking the country?

Kim has followed his father's playbook of engineering a crisis, then sharply driving up the stakes to a level where a skittish international community offers concessions to lower tensions.

But it's a worn playbook, and this time a dry-eyed and unblinking United States and South Korea have chosen to stare Pyongyang down.

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, suggests Kim is waiting for joint South Korea-United States military drills to conclude at the end of this month.

"It's important to understand that a lot of what we see and hear - the photos of Kim hunkered with his generals in a war room, the apparently irrational threats - are largely meant for a domestic audience," Pinkston said.

The rhetoric from Pyongyang was largely couched in the language of deterrence, with Kim portrayed as the leader standing between the North Korean people and a US invasion.

"When the drills end, the message will be: 'Look. They were going to invade us with their B-52s and their stealth bombers, but they didn't because of our nuclear deterrent and, above all, because of our saviour, the great marshal Kim Jong Un'," Pinkston said.

"That's how it works."


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