The Big Read: Inside the murderous, secretive empire of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un

Game of Thrones has nothing on Kim Jong-Un. His wife is kept hidden. He executed his uncle by anti-aircraft gun. How long can the North Korean despot keep the lid on 25 million impoverished people?

For Jong-Un, it's a matter of survival.

He must kill first. Or be killed.

It's the inevitable paranoia of despotism.

Kim Jong-Un took power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il. He's the third member of the Kim family to rule since the peninsula was divided up after World War II.

It established - and maintained - control through a strict personality cult.

The Kim family is supreme. Knowledge is a threat. All dissent will be brutally suppressed.

Jong-Un has not deviating from this tried and tested method.

A portrait of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and a depiction of the country's newest missile, left, are displayed at a flower show marking Kim's birthday in North Korea. Photo / AP
A portrait of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and a depiction of the country's newest missile, left, are displayed at a flower show marking Kim's birthday in North Korea. Photo / AP

The 33-year-old has since engaged in a ruthless campaign to secure his position, killing government and military officials he perceived to be a danger. Estimates place the number of his dead up to 350.

But, like all despots, he's having to play a delicate balancing game.

He has to maintain a degree of support among the general population. So he's had to keep them fed. He's even wound back on the number of brutal killings in recent years, go ing so far as to ban public executions.

But, late last year, something changed. His murderous purges have taken a sudden and dramatic upswing.

"There have ... been reports of instability in Pyongyang and even of several attempted attacks, including by factions in the North Korean military, against Kim last year," Waseda University professor in North Korean politics Toshimitsu Shigemura said late last year.

And Kim Jong-Un is determined to remain in control.

GRUESOME REALITY

Kim Jong Nam, the late exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. Photo / AP
Kim Jong Nam, the late exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. Photo / AP

Tens of thousands surge into the streets to celebrate the birthdays of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. These are the biggest holidays the nation has.

State media lavishes praise on the Kim family. They are depicted as having a touch of the divine - benevolent geniuses who can do no wrong.

Beneath it all is the knowledge that anyone caught muttering under their breaths about their leaders will be sent to prison camps. Or killed.

Whatever trouble is now afflicting Jong-Un's totalitarian paradise may be related to the defection of his former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thae Yong-ho, in August last year.

Thae vowed to expose the "gruesome realities" of life under the dictatorship.

"There are many ranking North Korean officials suffering from depression over concerns they will have to live like slaves for a long time if the North's young leader rules the country for decades," South Korean parliamentarians have quoted Thae as saying.

Pyongyang retaliated, accusing Thae of fleeing charges of embezzlement and child sexual abuse.

But there is little Thae can say that will surprise.

North Korea is a nation with no human rights. All people, at all levels of society, are subject to the whim of those holding station above them.

Oppression is a part of everyday life. Even haircuts are tightly regulated.

Filming anything - even family events - is considered treason. But photos and footage has been steadily seeping out during the past decade. Digital cameras are not hard to conceal.

They show speakers on every street corner, replaying endless loops of the tyrant's speeches. Every village is filled with monuments to the Kim family (Jong-Un has spent $US180 million on memorialising his lineage). But on the ragged streets are gaunt pedestrians wearing ragged, patched clothes.

The woman arrested for the murder of Kim Jong Nam. Photo / Supplied
The woman arrested for the murder of Kim Jong Nam. Photo / Supplied

More than one in every 100 North Koreans is now a political prisoner. It's a harsh fact revealed by satellite photos showing of the never-ending growth of the nation's prison camps.

Watching banned Western movies. Listening to prohibited music. Possessing illegal radios. These offences represent a grave threat to Jong-Un's carefully crafted mythology. He cannot afford for his people to find out life could be so much better.

Any more serious dissent is likely to be met with a death sentence.

Even among family.

OF PURE BLOOD

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Nam, right, his exiled half brother who was killed in Malaysia. Photo / AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Nam, right, his exiled half brother who was killed in Malaysia. Photo / AP

Being of the blood of dynasty founder Kim Il-Sung is still the definition of legitimate power in North Korea. But the Machiavellian moves of Pyongyang court politics make the bloodbaths of Game of Thrones appear mild.

Any and all potential rivals must be eliminated.

That includes family.

Most dramatic was the brutal execution of his uncle General Jang Song-thaek in 2013 on charges of corruption. He was blown to pieces by an anti-aircraft cannon and driven over by tanks before his scattered remains were burnt with a flamethrower.

When his wife, King Jong-Un's aunt - Kim Kyong-hui - protested, she was poisoned. All remaining members of her family (Jong-Un's cousins) were shot dead, including those who were ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba.

The recent low public profile of Jong-Un's own wife, Ri Sol Ju, may be both a sign and a symptom of Jong-Un's insecurity. Was she involved in a plot? Or does he fear for her life?

The pair married in 2012 and initially appeared inseparable. Hardly a photo opportunity was missed to show the happy young couple enjoying the prosperity of a happy populace.

All that changed in 2015. Ri would vanish from the public eye for months, leading to speculation as to her fate. After a seven month absence, the 27-year-old Ri suddenly appeared in December - this time at Jong-Un's side during an air-combat training exercise.

While the ruling couple have no official offspring, said they have a daughter.

The succession remains an issue, however.

Jong-Un's surviving brother and sister aren't seen as much of a threat. While Kim Yo-Jong are believed to hold positions within his administration, North Korea is a patriarchal society. The chances of a woman rising to any kind of power is seen to be very slim.

His brother Kim Jong-chul has next to no public profile. Without a circle of friends or an official job, he's not likely to be seen as a threat.

But the murder of the eldest brother, Kim Jong-Nam, earlier this week can be seen as almost inevitable. There has been persistent speculation that China - increasingly embarrassed by the rogue behaviour of their closest neighbour - had been grooming him as a 'ruler-in-waiting'. All it would take for Beijing to unseat Jong-Un was for the dictator to take things one step too far.

Now, though, Jong-Un has removed that option from the table.

And he's been busily whittling down any fresh potential source of internal opposition.

TERROR INTENSIFYING

A weapon being launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo / AP
A weapon being launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo / AP

Jong-Un's actions surpass anything his ruthless father was accused of.

One of his first - and most dramatic - public displays of power was the murder of a vice-minister for the army in 2012. He was accused of partying during Kim Jong-Il's official mourning period.

He was made to walk across the target of a mortar live-fire exercise.

Now death-sentences are being handed out for the most trivial offences.

In August last year, a deputy prime minister was accused of 'disrespectful posture'. He was executed by firing squad.

Death by anti-aircraft cannon returned to the execution repertoire in 2015.

It has since become recognised as Jong-Un's signature.

This time it was a Defence Minister. He was accused of falling asleep during an event attended by the young despot. He was reportedly blasted to pieces in front of a crowd of several hundred.

Then, in August last year, an agricultural minister and education official met a similar fate on the parade ground of a Pyongyang military academy.

A defector recently told South Korean officials: "It was something that you can't dare to look at with your eyes wide open ... The brutal killing of the people using an anti-aircraft machine gun was unprecedented in North Korean history and has only been witnessed in the Kim Jong-un era. You will hardly confront Kim once you see an execution."

Which, of course, is the whole point.

The executions are likely a show of force in retaliation for several high-profile defections and increased talk of government instability and disunity.

But the butcher's bill is beginning to exact a toll.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byng-se said last year that a record number of members of North's well educated, and relatively privileged, ruling classes had begun slipping across the borders.

He said he believed it to be a sign of deep cracks emerging within the reclusive regime.

FEET OF CLAY

Buildings are seen in the morning light from the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo / AP
Buildings are seen in the morning light from the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo / AP

In January, Jong-Un's long-term right hand man - chief of secret police General Kim Won-hong - was fired from his trusted position and demoted. He's just one of a long list of high-ranking officials to have lost status in recent weeks. They remain subjects of ongoing internal investigations.

"Kim Won-hong has been a key aide to Kim Jong-un and has buttressed his reign of terror," spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry Jeong Joon-hee said. "His dismissal could further deepen unrest among officials and add to the instability of the regime by weakening its control on the people."

Shoring up support may prove difficult.

Jong-Un has spent almost $US300 million of his nation's scarce cash reserves on developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them.

He's also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a lavish personal lifestyle, as well as extravagant luxury imports and public building projects - such as a ski resort - that suit his own tastes.

He has a bulletproof train. A $US7 million, 30ft yacht. Personal cinemas. Sports cars. Racehorses. And an enormous collection of designer sports shoes.

Imported designer watches and high-end liquor are frequent gifts intended to keep officials on-side.

But his nation barely even has a middle class. And the number of impoverished is enormous.

Keeping the lid on dissent at the top may be solved by a few anti-aircraft shells, analysts say.

But suppressing the resentment of the masses may prove another matter.

Particularly as North Korea is one of the most militarised nations on Earth, with five million active and reserve personnel.

Jong-Un cannot rely on ignorance much longer. Despite repeated crackdowns and overwhelming penalties, personal digital devices are said to be pervading North Korean society.

The despot ruler is no longer the only one to enjoy foreign movies.

These open a window to the possibility of a better life.

Kim Jong-Un faces a rising tide of dissent. And he knows only one way to face it.

- news.com.au

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