I can venture a guess that Kim Jong-un normally is not very excited about elections.
But following November’s mock proclamation of Jong-un by The Onion as the Sexiest Man Alive (a claim repeated verbatim in the Chinese media) and North Korea’s launch of a missile system purportedly capable of hitting the western United States, TIME Magazine readers have voted overwhelmingly in favor of making the North Korean leader the "Person of the Year."
Or did they really? TIME freely admits the poll is “completely unscientific.” Well, it’s a little worse than that: one has to wonder if the results reflect anyone’s opinion but a bunch of online parodists. 4chan hackers successfully were able to game the poll so much that the results, in order, spell ‘KJU GAS CHAMBERS’ (a reference to the North Korean regime’s continued use of death camps to deal with political enemies).
So yeah, the win is a joke – but Kim’s first year in office has been deadly serious. Even disregarding the Tuesday missle launch, Kim has been a major force in 2012.
After the death of Jong-il, experts on North Korean politics furiously debated whether the regime would survive. Analyst Andrei Lankov gave the choices as “collapse or reform.” Kim has been quick to viciously consolidate power following the death of his father. In late October Kim reportedly ordered the execution of a deputy defense minister caught carousing during the official period of mourning, Kim Chol, via point-blank application of a mortar round. South Korean media said Kim’s order was to “leave no trace of him, down to his hair.” These and other extreme measures have helped to ensure the contiguity of the DPRK and avoid an embarrassing or bloody power struggle.
Kim has aggressively moved to secure North Korea’s image as a serious threat to South Korea and regional stability, thus reinforcing the intransigent regime’s bargaining power. He is assumed to have orchestrated recent attacks on South Koreans, including the sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of infantry deployed to Yeonpyong Island, in order to solidify his dictatorial bona fides with the North Korean military establishment and guarantee South Korea’s politicians continue to view him with an uneasy eye. He has also thumbed his nose at China, refusing to end missile tests despite strict warnings from Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying. So far it appears as though Kim has gotten away with it.
In August, former Kim Jong-il chef Kenji Fujimoto was invited to Pyongyang from Japan by Jong-un and reported that the Dear Leader was planning Chinese-style economic reforms. Joseph Detrani posits that Jong-un is actively buttressing his rule against old guard Jong-il hardliners, including “[retaining and empowering] his uncle, Jang Song Taek, a reputed moderate who has traveled to China and the West and reportedly is interested in economic reform.” These reforms could allow the regime to survive for decades.
Time will tell whether these measures are enough to stabilize the newer Kim’s rule. Early signs, however, indicate his administration remains durable. Despite an October report by International Food Policy Research Institute claiming a North Korean famine worse than the 1990 one which killed millions, from the exterior, the government in Pyongyang has appeared remarkably stable. In other words, Kim is managing to protect and even grow the regime’s international influence in spite of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history occurring behind closed doors – a horrific but impressive feat.
Few governments could withstand such internal stress. In April, the conservative Heritage Foundation predicted that in order to further legitimize his leadership, Kim would pursue an aggressive and confrontational foreign policy and increase leadership purges. That prediction appears to have come true.
Another Kim accomplishment has been successfully maintaining control of one of the world’s vastest coercive apparatuses through what could have been a character-changing transition. The majority of human rights abuses in North Korea go unreported. At the notorious Camp 22 facility for political prisoners, North Korean scientists have been accused of testing chemical weapons on inmates. Kim has continued this trend; Human Rights Watch calls North Korea an “economic system built on forced labor.” In a year in which autocratic governments have been challenged like never before, leaving uncertainty in its wake, Kim has managed to ensure 25 million people remain under his thrall. Few leaders hold such iron-fisted power at home.
Jong-un has managed to do what Jong-il could not in his waning years: Make foreigners take North Korea seriously. He has made it seem possible that Stalinist rule in the DPRK will in a short time again be considered a serious threat to regional stability rather than a bizarre historical anachronism.
Finally, declaring Jong-un Person of the Year would be a bold and courageous move, recalling TIME’s famous 1938 selection of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. TIME should not be afraid to invoke controversy, and it should not hesitate to highlight the evil of Kim’s regime by noting its resurgent influence.
More so than any world leader, Kim has been decisively influential in world affairs this year.