Saturday, October 16, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - Sharpening the Treasured Sword

Under Kim Jong-un, the country’s nuclear program has been described by government spokesmen as "an all-powerful treasured sword for preventing a war and reliably protecting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula". Although it was Kim Jong-il who turned the development of nuclear weapons into a central focus of the regime and who oversaw its first nuclear tests, North Korea could only truly be called a fully-fledged nuclear power under Kim Jong-un, with continual demonstrations making politically motivated denials of their progress moot.

A nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missile being fired from a railcar on Sept. 15, 2021, near Yangdok, North Korea. Image via: KCNA.

Part III - Sharpening the Treasured Sword


Possessing nuclear weapons had been a gleam in Kim Il-sung’s eye since the disaster of the Korean War. While he was able to declare “victory”, in that the north remained under his control, the war killed at least 2 million civilians, destroyed 75% or more of all standing structures, and wrecked the country’s infrastructure.

While North Korea’s ideological goal has always been the reunification of the peninsula on their own terms, regime survival has been the pragmatic goal for decades. And key to preventing a repeat of the highly lopsided destruction the war wrought has been the development of nuclear weapons, particularly since the DPRK hasn’t had conventional military parity with South Korea since the late 1960s.

The development of nuclear weapons has been a regime promise for decades and the people realize that their material standards of living have suffered for this ultimate guarantee of survival. The existence of the modern North Korean state, it seems, is now tied to having these bombs. But not just for direct military reasons.

An integral part to North Korea’s strategy to reunify and to survive includes keeping the United States as an eternal enemy while also attempting to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. In doing this, the North can continue walking a fine line with provocations, shaking down international aid at the same time. This not only helps the regime survive in practical terms but threatens to weaken popular support amongst South Koreans for the US-ROK alliance.

Even while no South Korean or American has died from a northern nuke, North Korea has nonetheless managed to extract substantial concessions over the years amounting to billions in financial aid and millions of tons worth of food. From Pyongyang’s perspective, nuclear threats have turned into good business both domestically and internationally. Giving them up without substantial agreements by the United States might, in the eyes of the people, be viewed as a national betrayal on the part of the regime itself and could lead to its own collapse.

As such, one of Kim Jong-un’s top responsibilities since coming to power has been to fulfill the promise of turning North Korea into a genuine nuclear power all while holding off the international forces that would seek to stop him.


A Brief History

Kim Il-sung embarked on developing nuclear weapons with the establishment of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in the early 1960s, but progress was slow. And as the world changed and the Cold War ended, he seemed to be genuinely willing to give up the nuclear program in exchange for peace and better relationships with western countries. Unfortunately, his proposed meeting with US president Bill Clinton over the issues of denuclearization, civilian nuclear energy, and food aid never materialized as Kim died in 1994.

Kim Jong-il, facing tremendous internal challenges from an impending famine and needing to bolster his image as the new leader, quickly set aside his father’s ideas for total denuclearization while still paying homage as the dutiful son to Kim Il-sung’s “dying wish”.

Even though it was Kim Jong-il who signed the Agreed Framework, there is little indication that he intended to abide by it. The regime took every opportunity to present it to their own people as an “abject surrender” of the imperialists in the face of the DPRK’s might. Any rewards Pyongyang reaped were couched in terms of war reparations.

And anytime the West was perceived to not act in good faith, Pyongyang used that as an excuse to further erode the agreement. It wasn’t long before covert nuclear activities were underway once more (by 1998) and the agreement effectively collapsed in 2003.

The decision to pursue nuclear weapons regardless of diplomatic overtures was made more urgent as the lasting effects of the Gulf War became clear.

Saddam Hussein was forced to officially end Iraq’s nuclear program after his defeat; however, the fact his military was soundly defeated and his WMD programs were dismantled wasn’t enough to stop the deaths of countless thousands as a result of sanctions. This weakened his regime even further.  

The subsequent War on Terror and Saddam’s execution in 2003, followed by the Arab Spring and Libyan Revolution (Muammar Gaddafi, too, agreed to give up his nuclear program) all taught Pyongyang a very specific lesson: no nukes equals death.

The years of Kim Jong-il’s rule saw numerous advancements not only in the development of nuclear warheads but also in their delivery systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Jong-il conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and although the international community condemned the tests, called for denuclearization, and issued round after round of sanctions, Pyongyang felt it was on to something that the world was simply not willing to go war over and risk the fallout to – an active war that could easily involve a nuclear device landing on Seoul.

However, despite all of the progress toward the bomb and despite the privations of the people, North Korea was not able to become a true nuclear power under Kim Jong-il. It still lacked nuclear devices that were powerful enough to take out major cities, the ability to mass produce such devices, and it lacked the delivery systems needed to hold the United States directly under threat.

And though North Korea was undoubtedly making progress, it came in fits and starts. Seemingly free to proceed even further (by threatening to raise the human costs to unacceptable levels), Kim Jong-un would prove to be more than capable of taking what already existed and realize decades of nuclear ambition.


Early Failure, Early Success

After Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-un inherited the nuclear project and decided to expend every effort to sharpen the sword into something that would ensure no foreign army would ever again march through Pyongyang and would finally make good on decades of promises and propaganda.

While Pyongyang’s last public actions in 2011 regarding their nuclear program was to reach out diplomatically and call for resumed Six Party talks in exchange for a moratorium on future nuclear tests and long-range missile tests, and despite coming to a 'Leap Day' deal on February 29, 2012 for North Korea to invite IAEA inspectors to observe the suspension of uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, the decision to launch a satellite into space had already been made.

On April 13, 2012, North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into space from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, using the Unha-3 Rocket which was based on Nodong and Musudan (BM-25) missile technology. While the launch failed, the attempt was certainly a violation in spirit, if not the letter, of the ‘Leap Day’ deal that had been agreed to just two weeks prior. It was also a clear demonstration of Pyongyang’s desire to become one of the space-faring nations of the world, a desire voiced by Kim Il-sung in 1993.

In one of Kim Jong-un’s first major successes, a second attempt was made on December 12, and a small satellite (the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2) was placed in orbit. Contact with the satellite was soon lost and its ultimate fate is still not known, but orbit was nonetheless achieved. This not only fulfilled the first major step of Kim Il-sung’s wish but it was done before South Korea placed their own satellite in orbit on Jan. 30, 2013, giving the younger Kim a propaganda boost.

Although ballistic technology is a requirement for peaceful space exploration, North Korea has not hidden its ulterior motives. The video of the December 12 launch was later used in a propaganda film declaring “raise higher a nuclear sword of Juche”. The ability to use space technology as a cover or as a technology demonstrator for future military technology has a long history and should not be underestimated, particularly as North Korea’s two space facilities (Sohae and Tonghae) have long been part of testing rocket engines and firing missiles.

As Ankit Panda wrote for The Diplomat in 2016 of the mood after the ‘Leap Day’ deal had been agreed to, “At the time, observers of North Korea suggested that Kim Jong-un’s willingness to enter talks with the United States “[augured] well .. for Kim Jong Un’s foreign-policy smarts.” Even if that were true at the time, that line of reasoning didn’t consider Kim’s domestic policy smarts.”

The two satellite launches and subsequent events in 2013 Panda went on to say, “underlined Kim’s bid to earn legitimacy in front of the North Korean leadership’s old guard”.

As is so often the case, reporting and volumes of analysis tend to focus on North Korea’s outward-facing message and rarely take into consideration the internal message and how things play out within the marble halls of Pyongyang. It is this internal message, the instructions and propaganda aimed at the soldiers and scientists, and not foreign observers, that provides a much more reliable guide to what (and why) Kim does what he does.

Only a few months after the December 12 satellite launch, the world would come to realize what Kim’s real focus was on.

Race to Thermonuclear

Kim Jong-un examining the two-stage core of an apparent thermonuclear bomb nicknamed “the peanut” by the international media. This device (or one like it) was tested on Sept. 3, 2017 and was North Korea’s largest nuclear test to-date. Image via KCNA.

Kim Jong-il’s Songun policy was the Workers’ Party giving primacy to the military regarding the economy as both nuclear and conventional arms were pursued. The people’s standard of living would have to wait as the country faced “unprecedented” threats from without.

On March 31, 2013, Kim Jong-un set Songun aside in favor of a modified “strategic line” that was first put forth by Kim Il-sung in 1962: Byungjin.

Jong-un’s version of Byungjin (parallel development) insists on the development of a nuclear deterrent without sacrificing the domestic economy and things like living standards.

This shift in policy came after Kim Jong-un’s first nuclear test on Feb. 12, 2013. The test took place at the South Tunnel of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site beneath Mount Mantap and resulted in an estimated yield between 12 and 16 kt, making it the largest test up to that time; roughly the same explosive yield as the Little Boy bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The symbolic milestone must not have been missed by Kim and the nuclear engineers and technicians who were directly responsible for the test.

In response, the United Nations Security Councill passed Resolution 2094 which demanded an end to future testing and tightened the sanctions regimes in place against North Korea.

More than simply testing out old designs or trying to blow up larger and larger quantities of a limited stockpile of highly enriched uranium, Kim Jong-un recognized that he needed to give special treatment to the thousands of scientists, engineers, and others who were involved at all levels in Pyongyang’s nuclear program in order to better incentivize personnel toward making greater technological progress.

Propaganda was effuse with praise for these atomic warriors. Students proclaimed that their sole desire was to help build the country’s nuclear force and rewards (including housing) were handed out to those involved after each test.

Kim had also reorganized the Missile Guidance Bureau in 2012 into the Strategic Rocket Force. This branch of the military is ultimately responsible for not only missiles but for the country’s nuclear arsenal itself. Now, the SRF sat with pride of place among the other branches of the Korean Peoples’ Army.

Through this restructuring and reallocation of resources, Pyongyang was able to better focus on the technical needs required. Even moderate improvements in efficiency can lead to seemingly miraculous results, as history shows with Germany’s armaments industry during WWII despite the huge inefficiencies inherent to the Third Reich.

But the 2013 device was still a small bomb and only showcased well-known and fairly basic nuclear weapons technology. Kim needed something bigger and something that would demonstrate the North’s technical ability with even more complex weapons.

On March 30, 2014, North Korea announced plans to test a “new form” of nuclear bomb which analysts believed could have meant either a miniaturized nuclear device that could be fitted onto a missile or a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. Later in October, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Command said, despite a lack of new testing that, “I believe they have the capability to miniaturize a device at this point and they have the technology to potentially deliver what they say they have”. This concern was later echoed by other members of US national defense.

After nearly two years since Pyongyang’s announcement that it would test another nuclear device, seismic activity was detected at the Punggye-ri site on Jan. 6, 2016. The bomb had an estimated yield between 7-10kt, and contrary to North Korea’s claim that it was a hydrogen bomb (an assessment most outside experts disagree with), it was more likely a boosted fission device.

Though not having the same yield as the 2013 test, the technology required for these boosted weapons produces bombs of a smaller size, placing North Korea nonetheless one step closer to having a miniaturized, mountable warhead.

Following the January test, at the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in March, the government pronounced that it would never use nuclear weapons “unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes". While many doubt such seemingly peaceful statements coming out of Pyongyang, North Korea has long held that it would give up its own nuclear weapons as part of a global denuclearization program. And given the realities of a nuclear war (or even a full-scale conventional war) on the peninsula, there’s little reason to actually doubt Pyongyang’s assertions about its desire for global denuclearization or doubt that it would never use them offensively unless it sensed an imminent existential threat (such as a ‘decapitation strike’ from the US or South Korea).

Indeed, Kim Jong-un said at the 2021 arms exhibition that “war itself” was the country’s primary enemy. As clichéd as that might sound, as well as contradictory to their previous actions, the only way for the Kim regime to survive in the long-term is to avoid war at all costs. While there is considerable debate around these issues, Korean studies specialist Andrei Lankov has said of it, “showing off kinetic capabilities while also signaling openness to dialogue are not contradictory at all for the North Koreans. The regime is run by people who are masters of survival. And their goal is to nudge the U.S. toward relieving sanctions while working to ensure the election of a pro-engagement president in the South.”

And so, North Korea will continue their cycle of “showing off” followed by attempts at engagement, as they did back on Sept. 9, 2016.

Amongst a flurry of threats and condemnations between nations and on the 68th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, the Sept. 9 test had a yield ranging between 20 and 25 kt, overtaking the 2013 test as their largest one to-date. In their announcement after the test North Korea claimed that it was now able to produce "at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power".

Although North Korea has always had a penchant for exaggeration and claiming success when there was none, governments around the world seemed to have agreed with spirit of the announcement, with then U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper saying in October 2016, "I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. That is their ticket to their survival." Clapper went on to say that the US military had already ascribed to North Korea the ability to produce and mount a warhead onto a missile and hit US territory.

Less than a year later, on August 8, 2017, a leaked report from the Defense Intelligence Agency showed that the agency had assessed back in July that North Korea had indeed achieved the capability to miniaturize a warhead and hit the US mainland. The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence also agreed with the DIA’s assessment.

In an ever-declining environment for peace (from Trump’s “fire and fury” to the THAAD missile defense system becoming operational in South Korea) and with Pyongyang’s adversaries agreeing that they were a nuclear power, Kim Jong-un had one more test in mind.

Multiple reports from 38 North showed various levels of activity in 2017 at the Punggye-ri test site, suggesting preparations were being made for a future test. These were followed by media stories out of South Korea in August claiming South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency had reported that North Korea "has completed its preparation to carry out a nuclear test at Tunnel 2 and Tunnel 3 of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”

Then, on Sept. 3, 2017, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake was detected in the vicinity of Punggye-ri just after noon local time. Further monitoring detected a second smaller quake a little later.

The North Korean announcement said that the country had just tested a variable-yield thermonuclear device and that the design would enable mass production of the warheads.

Although previous claims of North Korean hydrogen bombs had generally been dismissed, the size and other signatures of this test had led to many analysts concluding that it actually could have been a hydrogen bomb and no intelligence agency from the US, Russia, China, France, or the UK have come out and contradicted the reporting (although they haven’t validated it, either).

The bomb’s lower estimated yield was 50 kt with a theoretical maximum of 260 kt based on measurements made using synthetic aperture radar information. Since the bomb’s yield can’t be verified, seismic data is key to understanding its size and what type of bomb it was. In any event, the test was so large it noticeably damaged Mt. Mantap and destroyed the viability of the North Test Portal (tunnel) to conduct any future tests without risking the explosion breaking out into the environment.

The 2017 test turned out to be North Korea’s final (to-date) nuclear test, but it proved to be at least 10 times the size as any of their other tests and may well have been a thermonuclear bomb. This substantial advancement could have led to a military strike against the country by the United States. Such an eventuality was even publicly discussed prior to the test, but the lack of solid information regarding the location of their missile launchers precluded such an attack in the end because the US couldn’t guarantee it could target all of the relevant sites and prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear attack.

Indeed, this cluster of nuclear tests, it must be said, was occurring during some of the most active missile testing years in North Korea’s history. In 2016 and 2017 there were twenty-eight separate launches of everything from short-range ballistic missiles to tests for the development of submarine launched ballistic missiles. All of which are theoretically nuclear-capable.

In 2018 Kim Jong-un issued a voluntary moratorium on future nuclear testing, saying the country had achieved its nuclear goals.

While some questions remain about North Korea’s ability to actually hit the US mainland in practice (do they really have a viable reentry vehicle for the warhead?), North Korea seems to have little additional need for nuclear testing. Having achieved miniaturization, their weapons’ infrastructure could move on to producing a larger arsenal from established warhead designs and developing new and improved delivery methods.

A view that I subscribe to is that there haven’t been subsequent nuclear tests exactly because North Korea was able to develop a sufficiently small but powerful warhead capable of being mass-produced and mounted on a missile, and not necessarily because of international pressures or even because of damage to the testing site. In other words, they accomplished what they were seeking, they weren’t “stopped”.

Reviewing the North’s armaments industry seems to support that view.


Atomic & Missile Infrastructure

Before any testing can occur, you need the uranium, plutonium, and scores of other components to make a bomb. You also need a place to test.

Much of the infrastructure need had been put in place long before Kim Jong-un came to power, but he has not merely taken advantage of what existed, he has undertaken fairly large modernization programs at many of the associated facilities.

    Yongbyon has been North Korea’s primary uranium enrichment facility since its inception. It is also responsible for the production of plutonium and needed radioisotopes (including for legitimate medical procedures I should add). But production has never been as simple as turning on a switch and letting things run. There have been many times that the various production facilities have been shut down for one reason or another ranging from diplomatic overtures to performing maintenance. This makes it difficult for outside analysts to monitor the activities of the center, leading to the occasional need to examine almost imperceptible puffs of steam and small drips of water from drainage pipes to determine whether or not a site is active or on hiatus.

What can be said for certain, however, is that during Kim Jong-un’s reign, there have been many changes to Yongbyon and to the closed city that houses its workers.

From 2014-2020 at least 21 new apartment blocks have been built or are under construction. This suggests a large influx of new residents to work at the various laboratories and production facilities at Yongbyon. Several additions to the laboratories in the center’s administrative area have also been noted.

Additionally, a chemical facility was added to the Uranium Fuel Fabrication Complex and most recently, new construction work has been observed next to the uranium enrichment centrifuge halls.

    Kangson is a suspected uranium enrichment site. While there is still some disagreement within the open-source community about its purpose, if it is indeed a uranium enrichment site, it would be the second one known to outside sources.

In any event, there is near universal agreement that it plays a role in North Korea’s nuclear program either as an enrichment facility or a factory manufacturing related components.

First built in the early 2000s, activity has been noted throughout Kim Jong-un’s rule, with the International Atomic Energy Agency saying in June 2021 that indications of activity at Kangson were “ongoing”. With Yongbyon’s highly visible nature and aging infrastructure, having a second enrichment site makes perfect sense. As does decentralizing the manufacturing of parts needed for enrichment like centrifuges. Whatever Kangson’s real purpose is in supporting the North’s nuclear ambitions, the facility has certainly not been one of the ones neglected by the regime.

    Pyongsan is North Korea’s primary uranium mining and milling plant, where uranium ore (coming from nearby coal sources) is converted into what’s commonly called yellowcake before it is sent to either Yongbyon or Kangson.

From 2013-15, a refurbishment program was underway to make repairs and to expand Pyongsan’s capacity. And while activity at the plant had been sporadic in the past, Google Earth provides a steady stream of images each year since 2011 and those reveal a constantly growing waste material reservoir. Since 2011, the portion of waste material that is visible above the waterline has grown from 53,370 sq. m to over 126,500 sq. m. as of March 4, 2021, indicating the uranium extraction process has largely been continual in recent years. The pollution associated with this has also caused concern in South Korea over fears of water contamination.

Further construction work occurred in 2017/18 and throughout the typhoons of 2020 and 2021 as minor repairs were made.

Monitoring the mining activities that’s providing the uranium ore to be sent to the plant has also revealed that North Korea hasn’t simply been processing older, existing stock but has actively been acquiring more ore.

Location of the portals (tunnels) at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and their conjectured configurations. Image from Google Earth/38 North. Used with permission.

    Punggye-ri is North Korea’s only nuclear testing site. Built around Mt. Mantap, it consists of several areas of administration and support facilities which all converge at the base of the mountain where four portals (tunnels) have been excavated. The North and East portals have been used for nuclear testing, with the 2017 test possibly causing irreparable damage to the North portal and the above rock. However, the West and South portals have never been used and are located far enough away from the others that their structure could be stable enough for future tests.

As part of Kim Jong-un’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing announced in April 2018, he also offered to destroy Punggye-ri. However, what international journalists were shown was nothing more than the tunnel entrances being blown up. There is no evidence that the tunnels themselves were destroyed.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security has said that the other tunnels are still capable of conducting future nuclear tests and that the facility could be reactivated in just a few weeks’ notice; a conclusion many others have echoed.

Adding substantial evidence to this is the fact that none of the facility’s support structures outside of the immediate testing area were demolished. Punggye-ri extends for 17 km and the primary entrance area remains fully intact as does the train station connecting the base the country’s rail system. Additionally, agricultural and other activities have been noted by multiple sources over the years (AccessDPRK, CSIS and 38 North). Agricultural activities are common to all military sites, with the produce being used to feed base personnel or sold to earn currency, and this indicates a continual human presence at Punggye-ri.

If Punggye-ri were irreversibly disabled (as with decommissioned nuclear sites around the world), we would expect that the majority of onsite buildings would be demolished and that other activities would cease. As such, it remains in caretaker status and could be reactivated at Kim’s command.

    Yongdeok is a secretive location near the city of Kusong where North Korea conducts research and development on the explosive lenses needed for most nuclear weapons to operate. It is also the primary candidate location for where the country’s warheads are stored.

Under Kim Jong-un, a new food production site was built to improve supplies to the facility’s personnel, a key tunnel entrance was later disguised, over a dozen additional housing units have been added to the administrative area, and various other buildings have been constructed at the main R&D section of the complex.

When you consider all of the additions to Yongbyon and Yongdeok, and all of the ongoing work at Pyongsan and Kangson, one can only draw a single conclusion. Despite the lack of a nuclear tests since 2017, their nuclear program has only been expanding.


The second part of having a nuclear deterrent is gaining the ability to get your bomb to a target. There are scores of factories, research centers, testing facilities, and missile bases in North Korea, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the major industrial and testing sites and how they have changed under Kim Jong-un.

Beginning in 2011 and carried out for several years under Kim Jong-un, numerous expansions and improvements have been made to the Second Academy of Natural Sciences complex (also known as the Sanum-dong Research Center) in northern Pyongyang. This sprawling facility is a central site for North Korea’s missile program and is involved in everything from designing missiles to assembling them. It is also suspected of being the development center for North Korea’s newest cruise missile that was tested in 2021 (more on the test later).

Improvements to the complex include the addition of a new central fabrication hall, a much-enlarged monument plaza that underscores the site’s importance, and in 2018 an unidentified building was constructed that’s approximately 95 by 75 meters in size.

Another key facility is the March 16 Factory in Pyongsong. Involved in the manufacturing of mobile launch vehicles, the factory received a new manufacturing hall between 2012-2013 and another one was added in 2019. Two other buildings were constructed in 2020. The factory has been connected to the production of a modified Hwasong-15 transporter erector launcher (TEL) and Kim Jong-un is known to have visited the factory multiple times.

TELs require specialized tires and the Amnokgang Tire Factory in Manpo is one of the production facilities for the tires. It was explicitly mentioned by Kim Jong-un as responsible for making the tires for the 9-axle TEL of the Hwasong-15 that was tested on Nov 28, 2017. Nearly the entire factory complex was refurbished from 2017 to 2019.

The last industrial site I want to talk about is the Chemical Materials Institute in Hamhung. Once a relatively small facility involved in the production of engine nozzles, reentry vehicle tips, missile airframes, and other components, the facility was dramatically enlarged in 2018 (under the direct guidance of Kim Jong-un) with new production halls, research buildings, and multiple apartment blocks for its new workers.

The expansion of the facility gave North Korea a much greater capacity to produce missiles and sits within a network of missile-related facilities that are all located around Hamgung including the No. 17 Factory that produces solid rocket propellent and the Mangun-po Rocket Motor Test site. It is worth noting that according to reporting by Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler, the majority of new construction at CMI occurred after the joint April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration in which North and South Korea agreed to carry out disarmament and “cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain”.

As for the nearby Mangun-po Rocket Motor Test Site, it was constructed in 2013 and is North Korea’s primary solid-fuel rocket motor testing facility. The first test happened in March 2016 which was overseen by Kim Jong-un. The development of solid-fuel missiles is an important step toward making North Korea’s missile force more maneuverable and survivable as they take much less time to prepare for launch and can be driven across more difficult terrain.

Other tests are likely to have happened since, but the most recent indications is that a test may have occurred in September 2021. The medium-range Pukkuksong-2 and the recently developed cruise missile both use solid-fuel propellant and are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The other permanent test stands that North Korea had during Kim Jong-il’s rule, at Sohae and Chamjin, were likewise maintained, with Chamjin receiving upgrades in 2016. Chamjin was responsible for testing the reentry vehicle nose cone of the KN-08 (Hwasong-13) the following year.

However, Kim Jong-un needed more than these older sites. In 2013-14 he had a test stand constructed at the Sinpo South Shipyard for testing engines and canisters in support of the submarine launched ballistic missile program and a test stand at the January 18th Factory was recently discovered.

Almost nothing is known about this new test stand other than that construction began in 2014, but the January 18th Factory is known to be involved in missile parts production and has a large underground facility. And we know that the factory and its environs underwent renovations in 2011-12 and again from 2014-17.  

Lastly, and for the purpose of brevity, I’ll just say that nearly all known ballistic missile bases have undergone some level of modernization and further development under Kim Jong-un. From new support/maintenance buildings to even the construction of an entirely new base, Kim has invested heavily in modernizing the roughly 20 missile bases in the country.


Carrying Higher the Treasured Sword

This chart by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows North Korea’s missile testing by year since its first one in 1984. The chart goes to June 9, 2020, but North Korea has tested a further seven missiles since.

In conjunction with developing the bombs themselves, Kim increased focus on developing and testing new delivery methods. From ICBMs that could hit the US mainland to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and even recently testing an alleged hypersonic glider, Pyongyang’s arsenal is becoming a very real threat.

Although satellites were the only things launched in 2012, the April 15 parade commemorating Kim Il-sung’s centenary featured six KN-08 ICBMs. It is now believed that the parade only showed crude mockups of the missiles, but that the missile program itself was very real (for instance, the nose cone for its reentry vehicle is known to have been tested at the Chamjin test site in 2016). Future parades showed improved variants of the missile, with the 2012 version only being a two-stage missile while a parade in 2015 showed a three-stage version.

The KN-08 program was eventually canceled without the real missile ever being tested, but the development teams working on the program were sent to work on the Hwasong-12, -14, and -15 missiles. The knowledge from the KN-08 program included work on reentry vehicles and adding a third stage to their missiles, as three stages are required for the missile to reach targets as far away as the United States and the reentry vehicle is what protects the nuclear warhead on its descent.

Speaking on whether or not the technology “displayed” by the KN-08 in 2012 was feasible or merely fantasy on behalf of Pyongyang, arms experts Jeffrey Lewis and John Schilling said, “elegant or not, these options are good enough to produce missiles with theoretical ranges from 5,500 kilometers to over 11,000 kilometers. The latter would allow virtually the entire United States of America to be reached from North Korean launch sites”.

Thus, while a real KN-08 was never seen, it broadcast to the world what North Korea was striving to build. Future launches of other missiles would later prove, as Lewis and Schilling suggested, that North Korea could accomplish the overall goals envisioned by the KN-08 variants.

The following year only saw minor testing as a series of six short-range missiles were launched on three different occasions in May from the Hodo Peninsula near Wonsan. While not crucial to the development of any new weapon system, the routine firing of existing missiles helps to better train North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Force and can be part of Pyongyang’s cycle of provocation followed by diplomatic overtures.

The first half of 2014 led to a major crisis. Starting in March, thirty rockets were fired on the 21st followed by two Hwasong-7 medium-range ballistic missiles. The growing tensions precipitated a massive exchange of artillery fire between the two Korea’s on the 27th across the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea.

Less than two months later on May 1, commercial satellite imagery revealed new activity at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center including modification of the gantry used to launch the Unha-3 in 2012, the construction of additional buildings, and showed evidence of multiple engine tests of the KN-08.

The exact beginnings of North Korea’s attempt to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are obscure, but Kim Jong-un has placed this leg of a potential nuclear triad (land-based, sea-based, and nuclear bombers) upfront along with the development of land-based missiles. Such a capability would help ensure the survivability of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (as submarines are much harder to target and most are stationed at underground bases) and would also give North Korea a second-strike capability (being able to launch missiles even after being hit by an initial nuclear strike).

The South Sinpo Shipyard/Mayang Island Base is North Korea’s primary submarine and SLBM development complex. Apart from the test stand that was erected in 2014, two construction halls were also modernized. Additionally, The Washington Free Beacon noted that a test platform submarine was located at the base, indicative of future testing.

That October, a successful land-based static ejection test (a test of the canister system) for the Pukkuksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM was carried out. This was followed by a failed test in November. The nature of a series of later tests in 2014 and 2015 remains unknown as competing sources claim some were only ejection tests while other sources say some tests were done with the use of a submersible barge.

However, on April 23, 2016, North Korea again made use of the facility by testing the Pukkuksong-1’s “cold launch” vertical launching system capability. The test wasn’t a flawless success, but it did demonstrate the feasibility of the cold launch process, moving North Korea’s SLBM program forward.

Finally, on August 24, 2016, North Korea launched the first fully successful SLBM from a submarine instead of from a submerged barge. Being observed by Kim Jong-un and flying some 500 km on a lofted trajectory, the Korean Central News Agency said that the country had now “joined the front rank of the military powers fully equipped with nuclear attack capability”.

Beginning in 2016 and going through 2017, North Korea experienced an inordinate number of failures across a range of missile types compared to previous years. In 2016 there were ten failures and in 2017 there were seven, compared to just two in 2015. Defectors claimed that Kim Jong-un had become upset by the failures and ordered an investigation into them. In 2017, even President Donald Trump began mocking the situation saying, “all his rockets are crashing”.

But this high failure rate may not have been entirely due to problems with North Korean manufacturing or technical expertise. Coinciding with these crashes, it was revealed by the New York Times in March 2017 that the United States had been attempting for years to interfere with the missiles or missile testing process in some way (perhaps trying to find simple but critical weak points such as during the Stuxnet hack that caused a thousand Iranian centrifuges to break because a small regulatory component was forced into failure).

Whether or not the missile failures were directly caused by covert operations we don’t know, but what we do know is that the failures soon stopped happening. By 2018, only one test failed. Since then, Pyongyang has managed a 100% success rate.

During that time of increased failures, however, were some spectacular successes.

Most notably was the May 14, 2017 test of the Hwasong-12 IRBM, which is capable of reaching the US territory (and major military base) of Guam. And finally, what followed on July 4.

On that day, under the observation of Kim Jong-un, the Hwasong-14 ICBM was first tested. It was described as a “gift” to the “American bastards” on America’s Independence Day.

It flew on a lofted trajectory reaching an apogee of 2,800 km above earth and flying for a range of 930 km. This placed the whole of the continental US in range if it were to fly along a more typical ballistic trajectory.

According to North Korea, the missile also had a device onboard that would be used to detonate a warhead should one ever be mounted on the missile, and that the device functioned properly despite all of the physical stresses of the launch.

Now, North Korea’s arsenal had arrived at the ability to target US forces in South Korea with short-range ballistic missiles, target bases throughout the Pacific with intermediate-range missiles, and even to target New York City or Washington, DC with the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Of course, in the middle of all of these missile tests were the three nuclear tests, each one demonstrating North Korea’s abilities to make better and better devices capable of being mass-produced and mounted on top of these newly minted missile systems.

Fast-forwarding a bit to the Oct. 10, 2020 parade in commemoration of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea showed off an 11-axle TEL with its associated missile, the Hwasong-16. The missile appears to be a new, larger iteration of the Hwasong-15. At 24-26 meters in length, this would make the Hwasong-16 the world’s largest road-mobile ICBM currently in active service.

However, it wasn’t necessarily the missile that drew attention. Although the Hwasong-16 does show that North Korea can scale up their existing technology and may indicate they are researching the ability to launch multiple warheads known as MIRVs, the TEL itself was the “wow” factor.

North Korea is known to have imported a limited number of large vehicles from China, notably, eight WS51200 TELs in 2011. But they are not known to possess the ability to domestically produce TELs of that size or larger (the Hwasong-16 TEL has three additional axles than does the WS51200).

So the appearance of the TEL suggests that either North Korea has gotten very good at modifying these vehicles, of which there are only 11, or most worryingly, that they can now domestically manufacture extra-large TELs. If they can produce them, then this raises the stakes because they can produce as many as they need for their missile program instead of having to rely on a limited number of TELs of varying models.

This would make it even more difficult for the United States or its allies to conduct strikes against North Korea’s missile forces as they would likely lack sufficient intelligence to ensure all relevant targets were hit. This paucity of knowledge, particularly through public sources, was corroborated by the 2021 US Defense Intelligence Agency report North Korea Military Power which gave the number of launchers for eleven different missile systems (including the Hawsong-16) as “undetermined”.

Looking toward his next decade, at the start of 2021 at the Eighth Party Congress, Kim laid out multiple short-term and long-term goals for future military technology in a wide-ranging, nine-hour report. Among those goals was the development of new tactical nuclear weapons, ‘super-sized’ warheads, new long-range ballistic missiles that could reach 15,000 km, the development of hypersonic weapons (more on that later), solid-fuel ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles, as well as the future launch of a military reconnaissance satellite.

Since then, we have seen several new or improved weapon systems.

On Sept. 15, 2021, North Korea tested its first rail-based ballistic missile by launching a short-range missile from a modified railcar. While the general technology isn’t new, it is new to North Korea and would give them an added edge in improving the survivability of their missiles as North Korea’s best transportation infrastructure is their railway and there are hundreds of tunnels along the tracks that these systems could be hidden in prior to firing.

That same weekend, the country also tested a cruise missile with a range of at least 1,500 km. According to Foreign Policy, the test “appears to demonstrate that Pyongyang now possesses a cruise missile capability that it could use to conduct long-range and difficult-to-detect conventional or potentially nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan, or U.S. military bases in the region.”

And then there is the Hwasong-8 hypersonic glider. First tested on Sept. 28, 2021, the launch came an hour before Kim Song, North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations, gave remarks and declared that the country had a “righteous right” to test missiles.

While the launch could just as easily have been a feasibility test, with North Korea needing more time to develop a deployable weapon, it is still one of the most advanced systems tested by Kim Jong-un. If it is indeed a hypersonic reentry glider, it could slam into targets without the risk of being intercepted. As Joseph Trevithick wrote, “This combination of speed, maneuverability, and flight profile make them extremely challenging targets for air-defense networks to track and intercept, compared to traditional ballistic missiles”.

There are even more missiles and weapon systems under development aimed at raising the “treasured sword” to even greater heights and capabilities. From the continuation of the SLBM program with the Pukkuksong-4 and -5 to the “March 25” SRBM and more, the months and years ahead are sure to provide many more tests and greater threats as North Korea’s missile program is moving rapidly forward.



Following the 2013 nuclear test, which was the largest to that point, North Korea passed the Nuclear Weapons State Law in which the Supreme People’s Assembly not only declared the country a full nuclear power, but laid out ten provisions for the purpose, use, and future of its nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the Ten Principles for a Monolithic Ideological System and other de facto and de jure laws of the country were updated to reflect this. Finally, in April 2018, Kim Jong-un declared the “great victory of the byungjin line” (a policy he had resurrected in 2013) in response to the construction of the state’s nuclear forces, seven months after their final nuclear test and following the success of the Hwasong-14 ICBM launch.

The nuclear testing moratorium since 2017 may be of value in and of itself, but it is clear that their nuclear program hasn’t been ended or even paused. And Pyongyang has resumed its cycle of provocations and bluster followed by requests for talks and aid (which the next chapter will cover). This is a cycle that has endured for decades and only ends up buying North Korea the time they need to work on their latest project; a strategy they’ve been rather successful at.

At times through writing this chapter it almost felt as though I was being “pro-Pyongyang”, but the inescapable truth is that no matter what failures have occurred and in spite of attempts to alter their behavior with sanctions, North Korea has made impressive progress in the areas of nuclear weapons and missiles. And no amount of horror regarding starvation and human rights abuses or moralizing over the priorities of Pyongyang can change that fact.

Through demonstrations of the Hwasong-8, -10, -11, -12, -14, -15, -16, and Pukkuksong-1 and 2 missiles and through testing rounds of extended range SRBMs and cruise missiles, this has enabled North Korea to prove it can target ranges from South Korea to Japan to Guam and to New York City. This, along with the high likelihood of the 2017 nuclear test being a thermonuclear weapon and the ongoing development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and even hypersonic weapons, Kim Jong-un has given teeth to the 2013 law and has fulfilled the aims of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by not just producing the various parts needed for a nuclear force but has developed an increasingly complex and integrated nuclear deterrent using all available means.

The ‘Self-Defense 2021’ exhibition of missiles, radars, and space technology which Kim attended only underscores their progress toward achieving Kim’s most recent “wish list” and lays out their future ambitions.

The sword has been sharpened. It’s up to Kim Jong-un and the international community to help ensure it is never unsheathed.


Additional reading from AccessDPRK

1. The Current State of North Korea’s Satellite and Missile Facilities, Jan. 11, 2020
2. Nuclear Fallout: The Health Consequences of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program Part I, Dec. 23, 2019
3. Nuclear Fallout: The Health Consequences of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program Part II, Dec. 27, 2019

~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.


I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/16/2021

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Tunnel Construction Near Reconnaissance Base

The Oryu-ri Reconnaissance Base is located in western Pyongyang on the slopes of Mt. Ryongak (Ryongaksan) at 39.018886° 125.631910°.

The administrative center of the base along with one of the large communication dishes (left) as seen via Google Earth on Nov. 8, 2019.

Very little is publicly known about the facility and even the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies' own Nuclear Threat Initiative database gives only a vague description of its location and describes it as a missile base (admittedly, there are only a couple old sources available). However, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency's GEOnet Server does verify that a place by Mt. Ryongak is called Oryu-ri (Oryu Village). 

The NGA's name database along with the NTI's general location description both fit the area and I am confident that NTI is describing what is not a missile base as such, but some kind of reconnaissance/signal intelligence base. Oryu-ri may play a role in missile defense, but it is not where missiles are launched.

Anyway, the base covers approximately 80 hectares and has existed since at least 1985 based on Landsat imagery. The facility consists of two very large communication dishes (with a diameter of 28-29 m) as well as two smaller ones. It has a clearly identifiable entrance gate and an administrative area, but what is more interesting to me is the fact that it has two large tunnels going into the mountain.

The crowded area around Mt. Ryongak

Despite its apparently clandestine activities, Oryu-ri isn't in a super remote area. The southern side of Ryongaksan, where the base lies, is also home to two camps of the Korean Children's Union, a Juche Academy, and the National Gifts Exhibition Hall (constructed in 2010-2011).

In 2019, just 350 meters from the main gate, a new set of apartments were constructed. An unidentified but suspected new national archives complex was also built nearby at the same time.

Adding to things is that on the northern side of the mountain are three military-related facilities and the Security University of North Korea. All of this means a lot of people moving around the vicinity of the base.

This brings me back to the underground sites.

Despite having external buildings, most of the real operations of the base appear to go on beneath the mountain. Outside, there's an assembly hall, some agriculture-related structures, and each of the main satellite dishes has its own control building, but I can't point to anything that might be where the signals intelligence are gathered, stored, interpreted, or anything. To me, this suggests that the main operations of the base are carried out underground.

Main tunnels of the Oryu-ri Reconnaissance Base. This older image from 2011 gives some of the clearest views of these tunnels unobscured by tree cover.

Lending weight to that theory is the size of the tunnels. The two tunnels are about 12 m wide and each one has some type of support structure above the entrance, likely part of the ventilation system, meaning that the underground portion of the base is not inconsequential. In 2018, the eastern tunnel (39.021580° 125.633111°) had a structure built over the actual entry face, obscuring its view and giving added environmental protection as people go in and out.

The two tunnels are placed 275 m apart and have been placed roughly 60 meters above sea level, with the rest of the mountain looming a further 130 meters above, giving an enormous potential space inside and plenty of rock cover in the event of an attack.

Large underground facilities such as this often have smaller exit points/maintenance entrances, and Oryu-ri does indeed have at least one identifiable access tunnel on the eastern flank of the mountain at 39.024930° 125.636075°. There is a second site with an old spoils pile, indicative of previous excavation work, but the tunnel entrance may be obscured by trees or hidden with a building.

Based solely on the positions of the two main tunnels and the access tunnel, I estimate that the interior space (if it only consists of one level), is 70,000 sq. m. However, it could be as large as 80,000 or as small as 31,000, depending on the actual internal configuration. This estimate is arrived at by considering the most concise and simple geometric designs that connect the three sites, along with the topography of the mountain itself. There is no evidence that it sprawls through the whole mountain.

Back to the access tunnel.

It is the location of the access tunnel that makes this next part all the more interesting in my mind.

Initial excavation work at both sites as seen on Oct. 4, 2016.

Beginning in 2016, initial excavation work began on a new tunnel ~330 meters north of the identified access tunnel and in the same area as the suspected second UFG access tunnel (39.027561° 125.634293°). At the same time, more excavation work could be seen just behind the Security University, 1.3 km away at 39.039439° 125.631268°.

Moving forward to 2020, a lot of progress had been made constructing the tunnel and a smaller construction access tunnel had also been added between the two main entry points of this new, larger tunnel, which is a common feature of long tunnels of every kind. 

This new, large tunnel is approximately 10 meters wide and has two probable courses. One is simply a (mostly) direct line from Point A to Point B which would take it almost right beneath the National Gift Exhibition Hall, and the other would have the tunnel more closely follow the internal bend of the mountain, allowing for maximum overhead coverage and without risking the structural integrity of any other buildings.

The white line shows the most probable direct path of the tunnel. The blue line shows a more inward curve within the mountain and has greater overhead rock coverage.

Because the new tunnel is located so close to the Oryu-ri base, with its location next to the base's UGF access tunnel, and that it comes out at a national security university, it raises these questions:

1. Does the new tunnel directly connect to Oryu-ri's underground facility? 
2. Could it be part of an expansion of the underground base?
3. Does it indicate joint activities between Oryu-ri and the Security University?
4. Or is it simply a future shortcut to the university from the new subway stations that are being built along the Hyoksin-Kwangbok subway line extension 2-3 km away from Oryu-ri?

This most recent Google Earth image shows clear tunneling work of a size capable of allowing vehicle traffic to pass through the tunnel.

Time will tell, particularly if the access road going from the Oryu-ri side of the new tunnel gets repaved and realigned to fit the other roads in the area, which would better connect it to future subway stations. Until then, we're left with yet another tunnel without an immediately clear purpose. 

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/8/2021

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade - A Decade of Monument Growth

This is the second of the supplemental articles for the Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power series. It details the hundreds of monuments built under his rule.

The 20-meter-tall bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il standing in front of the mural wall of the Korean Revolution Museum. The statues were unveiled in 2012. Image source: Commons/by Nicor/CC 3.0

Every country has monuments and what they decide to build monuments to can tell you a lot about the place and time in which they were erected, along with, of course, what the country finds important.

North Korea is no different. There are monuments to great battles, the founding of the country, and to important figures in national history. But what makes North Korea different than any other country is both the number and variety of monuments and the government-enforced ideology that goes along with them.

No one is forced to travel to see the Washington Monument, there is no requirement to take full photographs of the Victoria Memorial in London, and even in China people can give voice to a certain level of ideological debate in front of the giant portrait of Mao hanging above the Forbidden City.

While the Juche Tower, Workers’ Party of Korea monument, the giant bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and the Kumsusan Memorial Palace mausoleum may receive the most photographs and the most mention in the press (whenever the topic arises), those grand edifices only make up part of the crown of North Korean monuments, while there are literally thousands of others that dot the landscape and provide an inescapable reminder that this is solely the nation of Kim Il-sung, his descendants and their ideas.


North Korea’s cult of personality surrounding the Kim family had its roots prior to the official formation of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea in 1948, with the adulation of not only Kim Il-sung but of other revolutionary leaders and anti-Japanese guerillas, but after he became the clear leader of the nation, the cult began to take on new dimensions. In the decades since, it has become tradition for each new generation of Kim to expand the cult of his father while establishing one of his own.

Kim Jong-il secured his position as heir by building up the cult surrounding Kim Il-sung to religious levels and tying the legitimacy of government to the Kim family itself. After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, thousands of tower monuments to his “eternal life” were erected in every town and village. And from there, the physical and permanent manifestations of the cult were impossible to miss no matter how rural the area.

However, Jong-il allegedly told officials that he didn’t want massive or hundreds of monuments built to him while he was alive and while the people were still struggling with food shortages. While this would give him the image of a caring leader, more concerned about the peoples’ needs, it is also just as likely that he wanted to avoid internal dissent as the masses would be required to help fund and build monuments to a living “supreme leader” all while the state routinely failed to provide adequate food, medicine, and shelter to millions.

Regardless of the real reasons, it did set a precedent. The bulk of monuments relating to Kim Jong-il during his lifetime are those erected at factories and other locations that he visited while giving “on the spot” guidance tours, they aren’t mega statues.

Kim Jong-un has maintained this tradition.

Prior to Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, there were at least 10,000 stone and bronze monuments in North Korea. The vast majority were dedicated to Kim Il-sung while a small but important minority had been erected to Kim Jong-il and to his activities, as well as few in honor of other members of the family.

After his death, particularly between 2012 and 2016, Kim Jong-un embarked on a major construction program to enlarge Jong-il’s cult and to help establish his own. In keeping with tradition, permanent monuments to the living leader are less numerous than the ones built in honor of the previous one.

As such, Kim Jong-un replaced every mural of Kim Il-sung in the center of each county seat with a set of joint mosaic murals, each now featuring Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. He also ordered that the text on every Tower of Immortality be modified to include the now “eternal general” Jong-il (to go along with the “eternal president” Kim Il-sung). To understand the scope of that change, it required alterations to at least 5,260 Towers.

The massive Mansudae bronze statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang was also replaced with a new one, now joined by a statue of Kim Jong-il. The smaller bronze statues in each provincial capital were likewise replaced with the pair of them.

Smaller monuments dedicated to locations where Kim Jong-il had visited or gave “revolutionary guidance” in the last year of his life were also erected after his death.

Bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-in on horseback on the grounds of the Mansudae Art Studio. Image source: Commons/by Nicor/CC 3.0

One of the grand monuments constructed under Kim Jong-un in honor of his ancestors is the bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un riding horses on the grounds of the Mansudae Art Studio. The studio is the only organization with permission to depict the Kim family and they are responsible for every important statue and mosaic mural of the Kims in the country.

The monument depicts Kim Il-sung on horseback, both the man and the horse exuding confidence and stability. Next to him is Kim Jong-il, his horse almost bursting with energy as the Dear General led the country “forward” and “applying his unique 'military first' policy to turn our country into an invincible one that can never be defeated and has a nuclear deterrent in the face of the deadly pressing offensive of imperialists,” in the words of Kim Yong Nam who served as President of the Presidium from 1998 to 2019.

Unveiled in 2012, the monument was cast and finished in just two months according to North Korean sources and was one of the very first major works to show Kim Jong-il.

With Kim Jong-un having solidified his link to past leaders and sufficiently glorified them, he also began work on his own cult. As statues of himself are taboo, the first glimpse of his megalomania was seen in the 560-meter-long slogan sign on the hill overlooking the Samsu Hydroelectric Dam. Declaring, “Long live Songun Korea's General Kim Jong Un!” the sign was actually built before his official transition was over. A decade later it still stands, the only change being to reflect his own changes in policy; the word “Songun” has been replaced with “Juche”.


The locations of monuments in and around the city of Sariwon. Based on research done for the AccessDPRK project.


In all, under the rule of Kim Jong-un, the AccessDPRK project has located 867 monuments that were built from 2012 onwards. This represents 7.3% of all monuments in the country and new ones are erected every year.

Of that number, 31 are joint statues and 281 are joint murals. There are also at least 5,260 Towers of Immortality in the country. And aside from the alterations to the thousands of existing Towers, Kim has had a further 103 erected around the country.

In addition to the 867 that are currently known to have been built by Kim Jong-un, scores of others (in addition to the Towers) were renovated or remodeled in some way.


The 312 joint statues and joint murals are indeed new monuments, but most (a few were totally new constructions) were additions to sites that had already existed prior to Kim Jong-il’s death. Of the other ones, new Towers, new guidance commemorations, new murals of other kinds, for which I have a certain year of construction, there were 25 totally new monuments built in 2012, 36 built in 2013, 56 built in 2014, 55 built in 2015, 87 built in 2016, 82 built in 2017, 73 built in 2018, 52 built in 2019, 16 built in 2020, and two are known to have been built in 2021. Once satellite images are updated for other parts of the county, the 2020 and 2021 figures will certainly rise.

All of this new construction means that there are at least 11,755 monuments in North Korea. And between building new ones and renovating existing monuments, I estimate that at least $1 million a year on average is spent on this aspect of the personality cult. There have been tremendously greater expenses in the past (such as the Kumsusan Memorial Palace), but those are relatively few and far between.

Another way to quantify the scope of monuments in North Korea is to look at how much land they occupy. After doing a representative survey of the different types of monuments, totaling 10% of all monuments in the country, I estimate that the paved (e.g. non-landscaped) area of all of the monuments in the country occupies approximately 350 combined acres of land. Another way to look put it, is that they take up the same amount of land as 198 standard UK football pitches. However, if you were to add in the landscaping and wider public parks dedicated to key members of the family, the total area of the country involved in commemorating the Kim’s grows considerably. The land area of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace alone is nearly 90 acres and there’s over 80 acres dedicated to the Kims in the city of Hoeryong. 


While knowing that acres and acres of land are being used to glorify such a family instead of being used for better purposes helps us conceptualize the scope of monumental construction, knowing the types, numbers, and dates of construction does offer additional benefits for those interested in the topic.

The vast majority of guidance visits are publicized in DPRK media, but they are vague on the exact locations of the places visited. So, we can correlate the construction dates of monuments and their types to then help identify the locations of formerly unknown places, as these smaller commemorative monuments are usually built within a few months to a year of the visit. A good example of connecting monument construction with Kim visits can be seen in the elite KPA Farm No. 1116, where monuments and a museum have been built in response to multiple visits by Kim Jong-un.

The edification of the Kim family goes well beyond stone monuments in village squares. There are hundreds of museums in the country, many of which have been renovated under Kim Jong-un. From the expansion of the Korean Revolution Museum to the reconstruction of the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, scores of buildings that either directly enforce the ideologies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il or that promote the regime’s narrative of history have either been remodeled or placed under construction.

With monuments in every village and scattered throughout larger towns to the Juche ideological study halls to Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism rooms inside of high schools, and to revolutionary museums being located in every county seat, no one is far removed from visible reminders that North Korea is Kim’s Korea.

Add to this that the only official sources of information come from the state and that the regime has taken great steps under Kim Jong-un to limit outside information from breaking the ideological blockade, this layered approach to propaganda bolstered by a decade of new monuments has continued to shape the world view of 25 million people and it will be a monumental task in itself to overcome three generations of indoctrination if reunification ever comes.


~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.


I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/28/2021

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - Entering The Family Business

Kim Jong-un with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at the opening of the Rungra People's Pleasure Ground on July 25, 2012. Image via KCNA.

Part II - Entering the Family Business

Death and a Funeral

Kim Jong-il died on December 17, 2011, at the age of 70. Official reports say he died from a heart attack at 8:30 am while on his armored train touring sites in Pyongyang. Outside reports claim that he died in a “fit of rage” over serious construction issues with the massive Huichon hydroelectric power station. While this story hasn’t been confirmed, it is known that the Huichon power station (the primary hydroelectric dam in a series of dams and power plants on the Chongchon River) took much longer to build than anticipated and was beset by complications over the years.

It is interesting to note that Kim Jong-un did not attend the opening ceremony of the dam in April 2012. The dam was a major national project that saw Jong-il visit the site eight times during construction, and for Kim Jong-un to not take part could suggest that he was still upset over the circumstances that led to his father’s death.

As with the embellishment of Kim Jong-il’s birth, the North Korean version of his death was just as colorful and improbable, declaring that "the sky glowed red above the sacred Mount Paektu" and that the ice covering the crater lake at the summit cracked so loudly it "[shook] the Heavens and the Earth."

Official reporting of his death didn’t occur until 51 hours after the event. What palace intrigue went on at the time isn’t known. Despite any grumblings about another generational succession, and even though Kim Jong-un didn’t have decades to construct a solid power base, he had nonetheless been publicly “crowned” as the next leader and he did have powerful people working on his behalf. There would be no discarding the hereditary succession process that had held North Korea up for generations.

Removing any doubts as to which Kim family member was now in charge, Kim Jong-un was listed as the first person on the list of the official 232-member funeral committee. In traditional communist practice, the higher your rank in a funeral committee, the higher your rank is regarded in the ruling party and government. This was the case for Stalin during Vladimir Lenin’s funeral and it was the case for Kim Jong-il during the funeral of Kim Il-sung.

Of note, Kim’s uncle Jang Song-taek was listed as #19. Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho was No. #4. As we will see later, both men would play important roles in the transition and both men would come to regret it.

Absent an immediate coup, as some tabloids considered possible, Kim Jong-un carried out his familial and state duties to hold a funeral for his father which took place on December 28, 2011.

With all of the somber pomp and circumstance Pyongyang could muster, thousands stood out in the snow as Kim Jong-il’s coffin was carried on top of a US-built 1976 Lincoln Continental, with Kim Jong-un walking alongside with seven other high-ranking officials who were known by the foreign press as the "Gang of Seven".

The official mourning period lasted for three years and at the end of those three years, Kim would have to emerge as the undisputed leader of North Korea if the dynasty was to survive.

Completing the Transition

In the three years leading up to his death, Kim Jong-il had to focus more and more of his time on creating a transition plan for Kim Jong-un. Balancing the competing factions of the military and Workers’ Party and trying to manage smaller poles of influence within the Kim family and general leadership harkened back to the 20-year succession orchestration he himself had to go through before Kim Il-sung’s death. If it failed now, no one could predict what might happen.

Undoubtedly, there were those who wanted to influence the young Kim Jong-un. His uncle, Jang Song-taek, was the most powerful relative in the country and he had his own views on how the country should move forward. There were also older generals and traditionalists who wanted to ensure the dynasty’s continued rule through absolutism, and who rejected any notion of Chinese-style reform, as they saw it to be a threat to their own survival.

Many outside commentators questioned whether Kim Jong-un would be able to control the country and wondered if the regime might even collapse.  National Committee on North Korea founding member Dr. Alexandre Y. Mansourov said, “They believed Kim Jong Un’s young age and inexperience would make it easier for the time-tested party apparatchiks and Songun (military-first)-accustomed generals to manipulate the young ruler, to influence his decisions, and to control his policies from behind the scenes.”

However, we know that in the time before Kim Jong-il’s death, that there were purges and even executions to shore up Kim Jong-un’s support among the military, with younger generals being promoted up the ranks as they would be more loyal than those who served for decades under previous regimes. And we know that every diplomatic effort was being made to ensure a successful transition to Supreme Leader, including through seeking Russia’s and China’s buy-in for the move.

Jang Song-taek became a crucial link connecting Kim Jong-un with the various economic and trade organizations within the country and would also help him in the realm of foreign policy. It is suspected that Jang was actually in charge of DPRK policy regarding the United States at the time. Additionally, Jang had oversight of the various internal security agencies that would be essential for a smooth ascension to power.

Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of the North Korean Army's general staff, helped orchestrate the elevation of loyal officers within the military. He appeared with Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il prior to his death, and he continued to serve by Kim Jong-un’s side after his succession on several occasions to tour military installations and related sites.

Jang, Ri, and others formed a kind of guiding committee while Kim’s grooming was ongoing and then went on to head an informal collective leadership throughout the transition post-2011.

As part of the pre-transition plan, Kim Jong-un was created Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the Third Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea on September 28, 2010. This firmly placed him in the “No. 2” position within the military. He was also appointed to the Central Committee of the Workers' Party.

After Kim Jong-il’s death, Kim was not immediately proclaimed chairman of this or that for each of the multiple positions he was set to inherit. He did gain several key titles soon after, but the full title collecting process was a byzantine operation that occurred over the following couple of years, with each new position signaling his increasing grasp on power. And that would signal to those now holding his hand that they may not always be required.

The next procedural step was for Kim to become the First Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, to which he was elected on April 11, 2012. It was at this Fourth Party Conference that Kim was also officially made the Chairman of the CMC, a position which had been left vacant after the death of Kim Jong-il. Later in the year, Kim was also given the title of Marshal of the DPRK and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

Regarding attempts to influence Kim Jong-un, one year after his rise to power Dr. Mansourov said, “[t]hese predictions proved to be close to the mark on the family side, only partially correct on the party side, largely wrong on the government side, and absolutely wrong on the military side.

Though Kim was managing to collect all of the necessary titles and positions needed to be the sole leader of the DPRK, he needed more than just a long list of appellations after his name. He needed to consolidate real power from those who wheedled it in the past, and to put an end to any possible competing claims to his authority.

With the official process of transition nearing an end, it was time to become a dictator.


Consolidating Power

Jang Song-taek handcuffed in court. Screenshot from KCTV news report.

Although the ruling Kim is supposed to have absolute power, as in any functional system, working power is dispersed among individuals, factions, and agencies. There remains a singular “font of power” – an individual in whom all authority is technically vested – but no individual can successfully run a nation on their own.

North Korea may be set up to have an all-powerful dictator, but the realities of governance and inter-personal rivalries will always mean that power becomes dispersed among different branches of government and those who lead them. Higher ranking elites can therefore gather considerable influence over policy and can seek to control the national leader himself.

As such, relying solely on his family name to press his legitimacy and to shield himself from threats was not enough. Kim had to engage in harsher measures when suspicions (real or imagined) arose about others who might threaten his direct rule.

Within two years of Kim Jong-il’s funeral, five of the “Gang of Seven” senior officials who walked with Kim Jong-un beside the hearse were purged.

Among those were Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-taek and Vice Marshal Ro Yong-ho.

Jang Song-taek married Kim Il-sung’s sister in 1972. As part of the inner family, he was able to amass considerable influence over the decades, and by the time of Kim Jong-il’s death, he was the Chief of the Central Administrative Department of the Workers' Party of Korea, had been created a general, and became 2nd Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jang also held multiple other posts and oversaw various economic and trade interests. All of this gave him access to nearly every sector of the North Korean government and economy, but also enabled him to build relationships with foreign countries, particularly China.

Jang was one of several high-ranking officials charged with assisting the young Kim during his short apprenticeship and was supposed to help maintain stability during the transition after Kim Jong-il died. Throughout this time, Jang was able to secure ever-greater positions within the government, rising from #19 in the funeral committee to #5 among the Party’s Central Committee Politburo Standing Committee in less than a year.

His activities exposed him to criticism regarding his own apparent autonomous level of influence, and also placed him in the middle of internal power struggles between military-controlled enterprises and those government-controlled enterprises headed by Jang and his allies. This and his alleged sympathy for Kim Jong-nam created the environment for his downfall.

Hints of cracks in the relationship between Jang and Kim Jong-un may have first publicly appeared on Nov. 4, 2012. He was appointed chairman of the newly created State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. While this may look like yet another promotion superficially, it was actually the first move to sideline him by giving him more responsibilities but responsibilities of little significance.

Then in December, Jang, who was the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, wasn’t invited to a meeting of top officials to address UN sanctions. During which, Kim Jong-un made the decision to “take substantial and high-profile important state measures” in response to the sanctions.

Making his precarious position even more obvious was when he was passed over by Choe Ryong-hae to be Kim’s first special envoy to China in May 2013. Choe had been a protégé of Jang Song-taek’s.

Although Jang survived previous rounds of purges and demotions, his time was up.

Two of his aides were executed in November of that year and thereafter Jang wasn’t seen in public until he was publicly expelled from the Party on December 8. He was then given a show trial on December 12 and quickly executed. In the 2,700-word official press release regarding his downfall, Jang was accused of everything from embezzling funds to undermining the cult of personality to working with others to effect a coup. Regardless of the veracity of the alleged crimes, his life and legacy were over.

Lest we see Jang Song-taek in a purely sympathetic light, he was likely responsible for the downfall of another, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho.

Ri had been a leading figure organizing the military’s rallying around Kim Jong-un. He was responsible for numerous promotions of younger officers who would be loyal to Kim, and he had been a close confidant for years.

Ri was relieved from all of his posts on July 15, 2012, during a meeting of the WPK Central Committee’s Political Bureau. A list of his posts included being a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK, and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The official reason given was “illness”, which, according to NK Leadership Watch, can be a euphemism for insubordination or corruption. Ri’s last known public appearance was on July 8 during a visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace alongside Kim Jong-un. The exact reason(s) for his loss of favor isn’t known, but it may have been the result of changes in policy and influence between the political leadership and the military leadership. If so, this would also have been part of Kim’s desire to move away from the Songun (military-first) policy and toward a policy that reestablished control of the economy to the WPK. As Ri was a proponent of Songun, he would have been placed in direct political conflict with Kim Jong-un and with Jang Song-taek, who also favored reform (perhaps favored too radical reform as evidenced by his death a year after Ri’s).

Ri's ultimate fate is still not publicly known. It is rumored that he was either killed during a firefight with personnel loyal to Kim Jong-un or that he was executed soon after his dismissal. Either way, he has not been seen since.

Following these actions and the successful December 12, 2012 launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 satellite, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Region in April 2013, and conducting two successful nuclear tests in 2013, along with the economic reforms that moved the country away from Kim Jong-il’s Songun policy to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin (parallel development) policy (which will be discussed in detail in future articles), Kim Jong-un demonstrated he had gained full authority over the government and military, and that he could freely exercise power.

A New First Family

In any hereditary system, the main business of the family business is having kids. Without heirs to carry on your legacy, the regime collapses and you become the ultimate failure.

Kim Il-sung was married twice. First to Kim Jong-suk who died in 1949 and was Kim Jong-il’s mother. And secondly to Kim Song-ae, who died in 2014. Kim Song-ae was given the official title of “First Lady” in 1963 but that term stopped being used in 1974. The end of the official use of the title corresponds with Kim Jong-il’s own rise in power, as she was not his mother and as he spent years reinforcing his own direct line within the Kim family personality cult. 

Kim Jong-il, who had two wives and two known mistresses, left the position of First Lady vacant and was never seen in public with any female partner; although, the women would occasionally meet with domestic and foreign dignitaries without him. It was Kim Jong-il’s lack of a public family life that helped shield the Korean people from knowledge of Kim Jong-un’s existence for most of his life.

Establishing even more contrast with his father, Kim Jong-un would not shy away from portraying himself as a family man. Kim married popular singer Ri Sol-ju in 2009. Particularly in the first years of Kim's rule, she would often accompany him on guidance tours and gained an international following for her modern fashion style. Ri has been compared to former U.S First Lady Jackie Kennedy.

She gave birth to a son in 2010 and then finally, in 2018, she received the long-dormant title, “Respected First Lady”. She received this title soon before attending the DPRK-ROK summit that year and became the first Kim spouse to meet a foreign head of state, South Korean president Moon Jae-In.

The daily activities of Kim’s family are unknown. Ri is seen less often than in the past, likely busy being a mother, and she is rarely away from her husband when she is seen. And when not on "On the Spot Guidance" tours, Kim is known to spend a lot of time at the family palace in Wonsan. 

This compound was Kim’s favorite during childhood and offers a wide range of leisure activities. He also renovated the large Ryongsong palace complex in Pyongyang, which is the official family residence constructed by Kim Il-sung in 1983. Changes, including the addition of horse-riding tracks, have also been noted at other less frequented villas around the country.

Doing her duty to provide an heir and spares, Ri gave birth again in 2012, this time to a girl named Ju Ae. And a third child was born in 2017 according to South Korean intelligence reports. During Dennis Rodman’s 2013 visit to North Korea, he claimed to have met their daughter Ju Ae and said that Kim Jong-un was a “good dad”. Of course, the value judgments of a man who has spent very little time with Kim and who seems to willingly ignore the country’s vast prison system can only be given so much weight.

While still too young to rule if Kim Jong-un died today, these children do provide a future lineage for the regime and help give a sense of stability among the elites in Pyongyang.

It is likely that these children, who are not seen in public, will one day be sent to Switzerland (or perhaps Russia or China) for their educations and that they will experience their formative years in a manner similar to that of their father’s. Afterward, they will attend elite institutions within North Korea before being given roles in government and beginning their own grooming processes as the next generation.

Growing the Cult

Kim Jong-un receiving the crowd’s praises from the observation pavilion overlooking Kim Il-sung Square during the September 2021 parade celebrating the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic Republic of Korea. Image via KCNA.

North Korea’s cult of personality is the most pervasive and advanced expression of a personality cult in modern history. The roots of a nascent cult can be traced back to before the founding of the state, but it really began to take hold after Kim Il-sung’s victory over “factionalists” within the government through the 1950s and 1960s. Kim Jong-il was able to clinch the role of successor by further expanding the cult and creating a legal system and culture that deified his father.

Today, it is not unreasonable to say that the existence of the government is predicated on the existence of the Kim family. The highest body of law isn’t the constitution but the Ten Principles for a Monolithic Ideological System which explicitly demands loyalty to the Kim family above all else. But even the national constitution itself places Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in the role of “eternal leaders” and asserts that North Korea is based on the ideologies put forward by the Kim family.

While the blind adulation of the masses may indeed decline with each generation, the heir of the Mt. Paektu bloodline is still the supreme ruler. He is father, mother, and the source of all power in the country.

Extreme stories about the people believing the Kims can read minds or don’t require unseemly bodily functions may make for interesting headlines, but the reality is clear enough without the need for embellishment: without the Kims, there is no North Korea.

And so, it has been imperative that Kim Jong-un not only find his place within the existing cult that surrounds his grandfather and father, but that one is established for himself.

One thing commentators immediately remarked on regarding Kim’s appearance is how much he looked like a young version of Kim Il-sung. Connecting the young Kim to the nation’s father has been of paramount importance to bolstering his otherwise thin resume. As defector Kim Kwang Jin discussed in his 2011 paper for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, “Acting in his father’s name, Kim Jong-Il was able to seize and retain power. His son, Kim Il-Sung’s grandson, must now do the same thing. The regime knows that this basis for power succession cannot be used so easily again, and is rushing to tie the young man to his grandfather’s political legacy.”

Kim Kwang Jin went on to say, “To facilitate the transfer power to Kim Jong-Eun, Kim Jong-Il again sought to gain legitimacy for his son from Kim Il-Sung…Every image of Kim Jong-Eun was deliberately designed to imitate his late grandfather.” And that this manufactured image of Kim Jong-un as a kind of Kim Il-sung Version 2.0 “had the effect of pre-empting any opposition, since the second incarnation of Kim Il-Sung cannot be challenged.”

From his dress and outward style to his public persona, Kim Jong-un has done just about everything possible to remind North Koreans that he is indeed the direct descendent of Kim Il-sung.

To further enhance Kim's position within the cult, over the years, his mother has been given various titles such as "The Mother of Pyongyang", and "The Mother of Great Songun Korea”, elevating her within the family pantheon. She was also the subject of at least one state-sponsored documentary The Mother of Great Songun Korea.

Kim himself has received multiple titles and epithets such as Dear Respected Comrade, Brilliant Star, Beloved Father, Peerlessly Great Man, and has been described by the state as “the only and unique successor and leader of the Juche Revolution”.

One of the first physical manifestations of the cult came ca. 2012 in the form of a 560-meter-long sign on a hillside above the Samsu Hydroelectric Dam which proclaimed, “Long live Songun Korea's General Kim Jong Un!” The word “Songun” was later changed to “Juche” in 2020, as a reflection of the change in Kim’s policies away from Songun.

Other earlier works to build up his own cult revolved around elevating ancestors and reinforcing his connections to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. These took the form of airing documentaries, giving even more titles to Kim Jong-il (like making him Eternal General Secretary of the Party and updating the constitution to include Jong-il as one of the “eternal leaders of Juche Korea”), and requiring the people to attend ideological lectures. Through this, Kim Jong-un’s own position was magnified and his legitimacy to rule the country became even more unquestionable. After all, who could oppose the anointed son of eternal beings?

To reinforce this in a way inescapable to people’s daily lives, he had murals of Kim Jong-il erected in every county seat, bronze statues of Jong-il added next to the ones of Kim Il-sung, and he had the text on thousands of Towers of Immortality changed to reflect the “eternal life” of Jong-il as well. 

Kim Jong-un’s cult has been established, books have been commissioned, songs have been written, and people swear fealty to the man not to the constitution or rule of law, but in keeping with tradition, we shouldn’t expect large monuments to him in any great number until after his own death. For now, he is a living deity and continually studying his words will be the primary form of (required) “worship” for every man, woman, and child for years to come.

Developing His Own Style

Every new leader, elected or otherwise, tries to leave their own mark on the role and differentiate themselves from the previous ruler in one way or another.

While still being a ruthless dictator, it must be acknowledged that Kim Jong-un has taken up the role of “Kim Il-sung 2.0” seriously. Unlike his father, he does not shy away from public speaking, and he has done something his father never explicitly did, admit when there have been failures.

Doing this creates a beneficial situation for Kim whereby officials and bureaucrats can be more easily scapegoated for failures and Kim can remain above the fray as the caring leader. Together with visiting the sites of natural disasters (such as after the summer floods of 2020), this gives him the public image of a concerned and accessible leader, which then reinforces the cult of personality’s assertion that the Kims are fatherly figures who labor day and night over the cares of the common man.

As Atsuhito Isozaki, Faculty of Law at Keio University, noted in his 2020 article Characteristics of Kim Jong-un’s Leadership, Kim has proven himself to be pragmatic when it serves the regime, continually calling for the rejection of “formalism”, and has demonstrated a contempt for the overly rosy government reports of the past in favor of greater directness and accuracy.

He also seems to understand the fact that genuine loyalty and devotion to the Kim family has waned over the years. By channeling Kim Il-sung and making himself repeatedly available in times of crisis, he can inculcate in the people a deeper sense of loyalty and willingness to obey the latest Supreme Leader.


He began demonstrating this new leadership style almost immediately. His first attempt at a satellite launch failed, a failure Pyongyang admitted, and he didn’t shy away from criticizing past policies that left people hungry. He has carried on with this policy of relative transparency through to the present day.

During the 8th WPK Congress in January 2021, Kim told the assembled delegates that “though the period of implementing the Five-Year Strategy for the National Economic Development ended last year, almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives” and that officials should “be bold enough to recognize the mistakes, which, if left unaddressed, will grow into bigger obstacles.”

He has further acknowledged corruption within the government more than once and made mention of ongoing food shortages.

While honesty and transparency are typically seen as good qualities of government, within North Korea, they raise the risk of highlighting contradictory realities. The government reality of a “strong and prosperous nation”, with occasional difficulties vs. the reality experienced by most people of never-ending privation with occasional benefits. This could lead to a greater awakening of the people of the state’s failures to provide even the most basic necessities that all people expect of their governments.

Regardless, Kim seems confident enough in his approach and has taken steps to quell any internal dissent as well as to end the flood of outside information that was unleashed after the breakdown in order following the 1994-98 famine.

Defections are at all-time lows since the famine and the border has been sealed more tightly than at any point in the country’s history. Kim has also directed the government to take measures against foreign cultural influences.

Despite some positive habits, Kim’s dictatorial nature extends far beyond punishing teens for watching South Korean dramas.

Not only did he execute his own uncle, but he also went after his half-brother Kim Jong-nam.

Kim Jong-nam had been seen by some as a possible replacement to Kim Jong-un should a coup or regime change ever happen, and these things were openly discussed in foreign media. Making matters worse, Jong-nam had publicly criticized the North Korean government and Kim Jong-un.

In a move of ultimate confidence, Kim Jong-un ordered the public assassination of Jong-nam using a banned chemical weapon, through foreign agents he had recruited to carry out the killing all while Jong-nam was in another country – Malaysia.

On February 13, 2017, a group of women from Vietnam and Indonesia were tricked into placing a cloth covered in VX nerve agent onto Kim Jong-nam’s face while he was at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Within minutes, he collapsed into unconsciousness and died soon after. The event shocked the world due to its brazenness and cruelty.

According to Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, in Kim's eyes, killing his half-brother and uncle placed him on the same footing as his father and grandfather, and it demonstrated his "strategic intention" to strengthen one-man rule in the country.


Despite hopes that his exposure to Western education and to the ideals of capitalism, human rights, and the rule of law would have given the world an “enlightened” ruler of North Korea, it has become clear that he has taken the lessons of the modern world only to modernize systems of oppression.

By the time of the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea in 2016, Kim Jong-un had not only managed to successfully complete the transition and emerged as the country’s true supreme leader (with any remaining rumors of a de facto regency or of him not having the skills required fully squashed), he also oversaw substantial progress over the country’s nuclear and ballistic programs, embarked on billion’s worth of construction and tourism projects, successfully established an improved relationship with South Korea through the 2012 Olympics (an improved relationship South Korea would work hard to maintain), and he would be confronted with new challenges on the international stage as the United States elected a president viewed by many as just as brash as Kim Jong-un.

With ten years of rule to look back on, no one can doubt that Kim has created a leadership style far different than that of his father’s. And that he has taken well to the family business, as whatever real improvements have been seen, the core of the regime remains violent and willing to dispose of anyone deemed a threat. 

~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series.

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--Jacob Bogle, 9/13/2021