Is Kim falling from power?

Recent reports suggest that Kim Jong Un, who is the third generation leader of North Korea (formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) may slowly be losing his grip on power over the country and party – or at least think that he is.

A recently released South Korean report on the North’s dictator claims that his health has significantly deteriorating since he assumed office in April 2012. Kim Jong Un is reportedly paranoid and living in constant fear of an assassination, which has led him to binge eat, the South Koren secret service claims – with Kim gaining approximately a third of his previous weight.

Reports by North Korean defectors further say that while under Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father who ruled the DPRK from the 1990s until he was succeeded by his son, North Korea was more of a military dictatorship, Kim Jong Un supposedly lost trust in the military, purging a number of high-rank officers and creating an atmosphere of fear.

Also the North Korean gulag was further expanded, with construction going on in the concentration camps and the number of people imprisoned rising to around 250,000 – a quarter million – according to human rights organizations.

Defectors report that, despite the country being completely cut off from the surrounding world through harsh censorship by the government and a constant bombardment with propaganda, the population is increasingly losing favor for the government.

Even though the famine of the 1990s in which several million people died throughout North Korea is over and the public distribution system by the North Korean government is now again able to fairly reliably deliver basic food to the citizens, most people are still severely malnourished and can only survive by collecting food from the mountains of the country or growing crops in their garden.

The black market has also been thriving inside North Korea, with a vast volume of items being smuggled from China across the border into the DPRK. These include things that may be a threat to the regime, such as CDs, DVDs and in recent times SDs and micro-SDs with material from the outside world. Reportedly, South Korean soap operas have become secretly very popular inside North Korea – not because of their story, but because of the rare glimpse that the citizens in the totalitarian state get of their southern neighbors.

Kim Jong Un has started cracking down on the illegal imports via the DPRK-China border with electrified fences, CCTV, mines and more watchtowers being built along the border. However even the members of the security services and the military need money – nearly all work in the DPRK is unpayed for except for that of high party officials – and hence it is very simple to bribe security forces.

North Korean women who have defected to South Korea report that, while their husband usually work in official positions and are paid nothing or at best very little, the women of the family have to sell goods imported from China or home-grown food on the black market to sustain their family. When government security forces do show up, it is very simple to bribe them with money or goods.

Kim Jong Un has also worked on maintaining his position of power inside the party – he has purged a number of high-ranking officials, including his own uncle (and closest mentor) as early as one year after he took office. He was killed with an anti-aircraft gun. Another high-ranking party member was executed by flamethrower a year later for his supposed connections to Kim Jong Un’s uncle.

The current dictator’s military ambition may also show that his own party is losing trust in him and that he desperately needs an achievement to re-gain his credibility.

Although it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un’s rule will end soon due to bad health, there is an increasing dissatisfaction with the regime inside the population of Korea north of 38° latitude and there is also the possibility for a purge from inside the party. What, when and why anything will happen is up to speculation – but North Korea will stay a country very important to watch.

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