We are now entering the third era of miscomprehending North Korea. For 50 years, until Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, we were stymied by his “self-reliance” (juche) republic. Then, until Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, we were flummoxed by his son’s “military-first” (songun) Korea. Now, we are confounded by his grandson Kim Jong Un’s “dual-progress” (byungjin — standing for progress ineconomic development and nuclear capability) Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
After Kim Jong Il died, many of the West’s best analysts thought the North Korean regime, long declared a “failed state,” would soon perish. Yet there it still stands today, inscrutable and intractable as ever. Other experts expected that, even if the state muddled through, its “young and inexperienced” ruler would be overshadowed or overthrown by his powerful regents. Instead, the world’s youngest head of state has retired, demoted, or, as in the case of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, executed many of those regents, and looks to be firmly at the helm. Yet we still know frightfully little about him — tellingly, the one American who has spent much face time with Kim is an erratic former basketball star with a substance abuse problem. When Time magazine looked for an expert to profile Kim for their 100 Most Influential People in the World issue, they chose a novelist.