A madman, a lunatic, North Korea’s psychopath… even Eddie Mair felt comfortable speculating if Kim Jong un was “just nuts” on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show. But who, and more importantly what, is behind the actions of the 30-year-old North Korean dictator?
According to a leading psychologist, Kim is most likely none of the above, more a young man trying to prove himself while suffering “an inevitable deep sense of psychological threat that he will be perceived as weak and inadequate” by others within the regime.
Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, Professor Ian Robertson said that regardless of the politics, individual egos will always come into play, and though Kim is known to be very proud and nationalistic (his friends at his Swiss school recall him playing the national anthem over and over), the young dictator is unlikely to be driven by a desire for war, but a wish to carry on the family dynasty as an act of self preservation.
Unfortunately for the fledgling despot, the “psychological threat” of being deposed could, and seemingly has, led to the current standoff with the peninsula one mishap away from conflict.
On Wednesday, former North Korean spy Kim Hyun-Hee said of the country’s ruler: “He’s is too young and too inexperienced,” adding that Kim is “struggling to control his military and using war talk to shore up support”.
Worryingly for Robertson, people can be driven to “self-destruction or self destructive acts when their behaviour is motivated by threats to the self”, and it is almost certain that the implementation of UN sanctions following February’s missile test, has heaped more pressure on the leader.
Speaking to The Guardian, Jang Se-yul, a former mathematics professor who defected from North Korea to the South, argued that Kim “needs money to ensure his survival… and wants a large cheque from the United States, but is not willing to give anything up to get it”. The less cash, the greater “threat” to his rule, the more anxiety he must feel.
But how instructive is his age and upbringing? Rarely do men (and it is always men) come to hold such overarching power over the lives of their fellow countrymen at such a tender age. Both Hitler and Stalin came to power in their mid-forties; Saddam was 42, Mao was 52. In comparison, Fidel Castro was a mere pup at 35-years-old, but still had five years on Kim, and had been embroiled in political activism since his university days in Havana.
Likewise, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Saddam had all fought their way through swamp of revolutionary politics before resting ultimate power on the totalitarian bank. Kim’s upbringing sits in stark contrast, the product of a Western education, a person who likely wanted for nothing. If his youth adds anxiety into the psychological mix, what about his formative years?
“He is unlikely to be as ruthless as a guerrilla fighter, like his grandfather,” said Robertson, “his upbringing as a privileged child [rather than a revolutionary] may make him less likely to do the terrible things other political leaders have done… but it depends on how far he feels he must go to consolidate his position.”
Due to the nature of the North Korean system in which notions of democracy and civilisation haven’t trespassed to limit the brute force of “alpha male hierarchies”, the Kim regime is best compared to that of a “warlord, a drug cartel or a crime family”, said Robertson.
“The North Korean dictatorship is a group of people desperately holding on to power. What’s different is that this small group of people is able to mobilise mass media and brainwash millions of people. Because of this, the crime family has been able to hold onto power for decades, creating a dynasty.”
“The principle motivation for Kim will be to carry on the family business,” Robertson added. Like Assad in Syria, once a dictator exacts his authority in a despotic, authoritarian and brutal way, there are very few alternatives to absolute power other than a bloody end as people exact their revenge. Both Saddam and Colonel Gaddafi would agree, had they not been otherwise engaged proving that exact point.
Robertson admitted there will be other factors to Kim’s actions, “sentimental and ideological reasons, believing you’re the saviour of the people and all the delusions that come with absolute power,” but argued that his current posturing maybe entirely rational.
“If you want to keep enthralled a miserable population you want to keep them feeling as though there’s a constant external threat and a state of war,” he said, “that’s what brings them together.”
So perhaps Kim is not so “nuts” after all, yet the threat remains, balanced between the patience of the Pacific states and a young man’s need to cement his rule.