Kim Jong Un isn’t the overwhelming cultural and religious icon that his father and grandfather were. That lack of intense personal loyalty may it less likely regime change will halt North Korea’s terrorist threats.
When I was in North Korea for a week-long visit last year, monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were everywhere one looked. For 60 years North Koreans had been taught their then-current leader was literally a god, and should be thought of as such in all daily activities.
Kim Il Sung established the dictatorship by creating a personality cult loyal to him. His son continued the practice, maintaining control through his own unique public image and mythology. While he made sure to cement his father’s role as the “Eternal President,” Kim Jong Il elevated himself to a separate but equal status as the “Eternal General.”
But not Kim Jong Un, who is anonymous by comparison.
There was exactly one monument to Kim Jong Un, a statue stuck at the end of a subway station. While his father broke from his grandfather to create his own unique public image to make North Koreans uniquely loyal to him, Kim Jong Un has been dressing like his grandfather. That would seem unusual for a dictatorship that has been built on extensive, daily, efforts to create personality cults centered on depicting the current leader as a unique supernatural force.
Rather than do as his father and create a deep personality cult around himself, Kim Jong Un has been working to tie himself to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. That seems like a miscalculation as, while North Koreans are still intensely loyal to Kim Jong Un, he may not be as deeply revered as his predecessors.
It’s actually a shrewd move that makes removing him *more* difficult for the international community. Kim Il Sung isn’t just the founder and “Eternal President” of North Korea, he was a guerrilla fighter against Korea’s Japanese colonial government.
By reaffirming Kim I Sung’s role as the “Eternal President,” instead of endearing personal loyalty to himself, he makes it more likely North Koreans would keep their current system.
Reinforcing loyalty to Kim Il Sung reinforces the belief the current system is an eternal monument to Kim Il Sung and cannot be ended because the current leader has died. If North Koreans lose their belief in an “Eternal Leader” they will be more likely to accept regime change.
Iraqis were taught Saddam Hussein was Iraq, and it could not survive without him. North Koreans are taught their nation is led by someone who’s already dead — making it more likely the system will survive changes in leadership.
Reminding North Koreans of Kim Il Sung also hardens their hatred — and militant guerrilla opposition — to any outside influence.
Removing Kim Jong Un becomes a pointless endeavor if the regime he’s building is designed to continue, and be more dangerous, without him.
If someone within the regime can convince North Koreans he will continue the Juche system of the Eternal Leader, a decapitated Pyongyang will simply sprout a new head.