North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile this week, marking a significant step in its program to develop a nuclear arsenal capable of hitting the continental United States. Kim Jong Un, the 32-year-old ruler of North Korea, has ruled the country since his father died in 2011. So what has Kim meant for North Korea? Here’s a look at the North Korean leader’s life and reign:
Type of government: Socialist Republic of Korea
Kim first rose to power as deputy director of the North Korean United Front Department, in charge of implementing central policies. Kim successfully took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled North Korea with an iron fist from 1994 to 2011. Kim was trained as a pilot and was head of the North Korean air force until he took power, so it’s safe to say that he’s a talented leader. After 2011, he recruited over a hundred officials to serve in key positions, eventually being appointed to all of the most powerful positions. Most reports state that Kim still has control over the air force, though other top generals have defected to the South.
According to Kookmin University professor Choi Kang, Kim “doesn’t harbor an interest in the West’s ideologies, values or view of the world.” As of 2015, North Korea’s Department of State Policy Guidance included Christianity in the list of religion it does not tolerate. Until 2000, North Korea was actually believed to have led the way in prison camps and sweeping surveillance over the population. The deaths from starvation caused by mismanagement and the regime’s inability to feed their people (the food supply is now believed to be 98 percent rationed) means that the government has little to gain by allowing Christians to worship freely. In addition, before the 2003 opening of churches in Pyongyang, it was only allowed to hold services at home, during family reunions for prisoners of war. The opening of churches signals that Kim is willing to allow what the public thinks is a crucial liberty for the people.
The nuclear program
The Korean peninsula (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it’s officially known) experienced tense times and exchanged hot rhetoric between North Korea and the United States following North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons in 2010 and 2013. For a long time, North Korea was believed to have nuclear capabilities, but evidence for a bomb has not been publicly confirmed. Pyongyang has expressed its desire to have nuclear weapons to protect the government against the United States, and, as of 2015, was close to being able to put a bomb on a missile capable of hitting the United States.
How was Kim Jong Un first appointed to power?
Kim gained power with the endorsement of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in 2013. Rumors of Kim’s initial appointment as leader swirled in 2012, according to Reuters, though he was removed from office a year later. Analysts believe that Kim only took power with the help of North Korea’s defense industry. The military has long held a power struggle with the government, who wants control over the North Korean military, and the United States. Kim’s successes in completing a nuclear program — the North Korea’s first — allow him to stay in power and prevent his removal from power.