The dark side of Kim Jong Un

With the execution of his uncle last week, Mr Kim Jong Un, North Korea's 30-year-old leader, displayed a frightening ruthlessness.

But he had already shown himself to be a risk-taker committed to a military-first policy, although he cultivates a more attractive public persona than his late father did.

Since assuming power two years ago, Mr Kim has projected a public image that makes a refreshing change from that of his father Kim Jong Il.

Unlike Kim Senior, who travelled only to China or Russia and in a personal train, Kim Junior studied in Switzerland. Though overweight, Mr Kim is good-looking, sporting a sidewall hairdo and a bright grin - far removed from his bouffant-topped and sour- faced father. The younger Kim usually favours an old-fashioned tunic, but has also been spotted with a smartphone.

Kim Jong Il was rarely seen in public except when waving and clapping, in regal fashion, while overseeing military parades. His son is much more of a natural politician - he has been photographed being fawned over by female soldiers, riding a new roller coaster and talking to children.

Any notion that this was a breath of fresh air in a state that started out as a Stalinist dictatorship, with grandfather Kim Il Sung at the helm, and that has since transformed into a militaristic dynasty, was dispelled by Mr Kim's swift execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek after a cursory trial, and other actions.

The cultivation of two contradictory images could be deliberate: The high-profile "nice guy" builds loyalty, while the equally high-profile "nasty guy" generates fear.

"He is very active, showing his leadership openly," said Mr Choi Jin Wook of the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. "He has been trying to stabilise his power and make people loyal to him and scared of him."

Mr Kim has also displayed a strong appetite for risk. He defies the world by continuing with the country's satellite launches, believed to be missile tests, and he has written nuclear arms ownership into the Constitution.

Early this year, he sent tensions soaring across North-east Asia with a war of words against South Korea and the United States. He also unilaterally nullified the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and temporarily closed the bellwether inter-Korean industrial complex at Kaesong.

Still, he has kept his military forces in check: Since assuming power, he has launched no actual attacks on South Korea. One reason could be the reshuffles he has carried out within the top ranks of both the military and the party.

It might also indicate that the "war of words" was aimed not at wresting diplomatic or aid concessions from the outside world, but rather at focusing internal minds on external threats.

And signs of ruthlessness were apparent before last week.

Following his father's funeral, South Korean media reported that Mr Kim had instituted a messy new method of execution, ordering those who had not acted with appropriate sobriety during the mourning period to be executed by mortar fire, rather than by a firing squad.

Questions hang over his statesmanship.

Mr Kim declined to meet high-profile US players such as former ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson and Google chief Eric Schmidt when they visited Pyongyang, but struck up an unlikely friendship - complete with public man-hugs - with American basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman.

Pyongyang's most critical ally is Beijing, but by liquidating his uncle, Mr Kim has eliminated his key contact with China. It was Jang who engineered the creation of 14 special economic zones, most of which are expected to be filled with Chinese investment.

Mr Kim's actions early this year also drew harsh words from Beijing, but China remains unwilling to censure North Korea.

So Mr Kim's rule continues apace.

"Has Kim achieved anything substantive? No. Has he cast the state into the nearest dumpster in a rash dash for economic reform and Chinese-style opening? No," said Mr Chris Green, the international relations manager of Seoul- based website DailyNK, which maintains sources in the North. "North Korea continues much the same as it always did."

Stasis might worry Mr Kim: He is only 30, so he could be in power for another 40 years. However, the challenges facing him are colossal: He is isolated by global sanctions; he has lost control of his own economy, which is now market-based outside Pyongyang; and he heads an ossified system that could implode if reformed.

"He is the only one of the heads of state on Earth who faces an existential threat," said Mr Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University.

As for who Mr Kim's closest advisers are now, all eyes will be on the ceremonies to be held tomorrow to commemorate the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death, to see which regime figures appear closest to this dangerous young man.

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