10 years ago, Kim Jong Un became leader of North Korea after the death of his father. In the following decade, the secretive country and its leader have rarely been out of the news. Let’s discuss what happened during North Korea’s past decade in this episode of Thinking in English! 

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Vocabulary List

Secretive (adj) – If something or someone is secretive, they don’t want others to know anything about them 

She is very secretive about her age

Personality Cult (n) – official organised love for a particular person, especially a political leader

Stalin establish a personality cult in the Soviet Union  

To force (v) – to make something happen, or make someone do something difficult, unpleasant, or unusual, especially by threatening or not offering the possibility of choice

I have to force myself to be nice to him

Heir apparent (n) – the person with the automatic right to legally receive all or most of the money, property, titles, etc. from another person when they die

The Prince of Wales is the heir apparent to the throne of England

To purge (v) – to get rid of people from an organisation because you do not agree with them

Party leaders have purged the political party of extremists

Noticeable (adj) – easy to see or recognize

There has been a noticeable improvement in James’s cooking 

Repressive (adj) – controlling what people do, especially by using force

Myanmar was taken over by a repressive military regime

Hardship (n) – a condition of life that causes difficulty or suffering

The 1930s were a time of high unemployment and economic hardship

10 years ago, on the 17th December 2011, Kim Jong Il passed away. He was the Supreme Leader of North Korea between 1994 and 2011, son of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, and in charge of one of the most secretive countries in the world. After taking control of the country, he created a cult around his personality, spreading myths around the country. It is said he was born under a double rainbow and with a new star appearing in the sky; could walk three weeks after he was born; could talk after just eight weeks; wrote 1500 books and six operas “better than any in the history of music”; the first time he ever played a round of golf he shot 11 hole-in-ones then retired; and never went to the toilet! All of that appears in his official North Korean biography.. But of course none of it was true. 

In reality, he took over a country struggling with famine and a failing economy. He pushed North Korea towards nuclear weapons and missile developments. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands, maybe even millions, of North Koreans through executions, forced labour, prisons, and famine. While his citizens were starving, he was spending millions of dollars buying luxury goods, imported food and alcohol, and building one of the world’s largest film collections. When he died in 2011, there was hope, perhaps naïve hope, that his successor may be different. 

Kim Jong Un, was the third, youngest, and favourite of Kim Jong Il’s sons. It is believed he was educated at an elite boarding school in Switzerland, but his existence was kept secret until September 2010. With his father struggling with his health, the young Kim was gradually positioned as the country’s heir-apparent. After taking control of the country,  Kim Jong Un was described in the west as too young, too weak, and too inexperienced. It was said that the North Korean military and generals would likely take over. Perhaps the regime would collapse within a few months, or be controlled by China – the only real ally of the Asian country. Others said that perhaps the young leader would make a few changes to North Korea to help himself stay in power. 

With hindsight, things happened very differently. The young Kim Jung Un followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. He executed members of his own family, including a powerful uncle and his half-brother in an international airport, and other influential rivals. He purged the country’s government and military of anyone who may rival or challenge him. One shocking example was the execution of the North Korean armed forces minister – Hyon Yong Chol. Apparently, after sleeping during a meeting and complaining about Kim, he was killed with a massive anti-aircraft gun. 

At first, there was a noticeable change in economic policy. Within a few years Kim Jong Un changed agriculture and enterprise laws to allow the beginnings of private business; experts were invited from abroad to provide economic advice; Pyongyang, the capital city, was filled with skyscrapers under a policy called “socialist construction”; trade with China increased; and tourist attractions were built. The refugees fleeing from North Korea began to say they were no longer fleeing to survive, but instead for freedom – suggesting economic improvements.  

However, economic improvements did not mean a successful economy for the whole country or political freedom. North Korea remains one of the weakest economies and most repressive dictatorships in the world. The country is more repressive than it has ever been, the borders are much more controlled than the early 2000s, and his father’s weapons programme has been expanded. Kim Jong Un now has missiles that can reach North America and nuclear weapons. As a result, the country has struggled to make international friends. Due to the weapons, the country faces massive sanctions meaning it can no longer trade with most countries. Kim Jong Un has little money with which to achieve any of his goals.

In 2018, there was a brief period of hope when Kim Jong Un met with the US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. However, after Kim Jong Un demanded that the US stop all punishments aimed at North Korea in return for closing down all nuclear facilities in the country, Donald Trump refused and caused the summit to collapse. Trade and relations did improve with China at this period, much of this illegal and secret. However, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed North Korea completely back to the days of Kim Jong Un’s father. 

The border with China has been closed for two years and probably will stay closed. There is no tourism. Charities and aid organisations haven’t been able to enter the country either. Most diplomats have left as well. Kim Jong Un himself has admitted the country is running low on food, and even asked his people to prepare for hardship.

At the same time, he has cracked down on foreign entertainment – especially from South Korea. Kim Jong has refused any offer of assistance, refused to accept donations of Covid vaccinations, and is not cooperating with South Korea’s attempts to officially end the Korean war.  

The next ten years could look very similar for North Korea. Unless his health fails, Kim Jong Un will likely retain a strong control over the country. 10 years ago, Kim Jong Un told the world he was going to turn his country into an “economically powerful state.” Today, the North is struggling to feed its people and has close to no trade with other countries.

Many experts believe the North will once again try to build more nuclear weapons and missiles. Why? Well this is an old technique the country uses. It builds weapons and threatens war. Then, when the international community is most concerned, they will offer to stop their weapons programmes in return for economic help. The North has been using this tactic for 20 years, and likely will employ it in the next few years.   

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have provided you with a brief recap of the past decade of North Korea. It is ten years since Kim Jong Un took over leadership of the secretive country, and he has followed up with purges, executions, and limited reforms. With the impact of Covid, North Korea today is perhaps the most North Korean it has been in the past decade. Food is running low, but repression is high. 

What do you think about North Korea? What do you think about Kim Jong Un? D0 you have hope that North Korea will have a peaceful future? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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