Cracks in North Korea's Secretive Regime: Is Kim Jong-Un Losing His Iron Grip?

On April 13 at 7:36 a.m., the North Korean government proudly launched a missile in celebration of the 100th birthday of the nation's founder. Insisting that the missile was a weather-related satellite intended to be sent into the atmosphere, the country's 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un, dismissed international condemnation. The launch had the potential to build the new leader's credibility within his party, and he even invited foreign media outlets, and journalists to cover the launch — giving them unprecedented access to the launch site while standing alongside North Korean scientists.

Instead of the spectacular celebration that Kim and his cadre of party members anticipated, the missile fizzled, and landed in international waters off of South Korea’s west coast two minutes after the launch. Spectators in North Korea, and foreign policy experts, have published a plethora of articles since then, describing the diplomatic implications of this launch. President Obama even decided not to send the 240,000 tons of food aid that he promised to Kim’s citizens had the government agreed to suspend their nuclear tests.  

One specific turn of events that warrants more nuanced attention is that, for the first time among three failed missile launches, the government admitted their failure to their own country. On April 13, North Korea’s television programming was interrupted by breaking news where an anchorwoman said that the missile launch, “did not end in success.” Click here for live footage of people celebrating, interviews with North Korean civilians, and the anchorwoman’s broadcast.)  

This act of surprising accountability, and transparency, arguably indicates that the government now acknowledges that they can no longer keep sizable secrets from their people. The North Korean government is not a dumb government by any means, and they acknowledge that a significant percentage of their people are illegally consuming foreign media, which includes western journalists’ analyses of North Korea. The North Korean government also recognizes the rampant use of illegal mobile phones around the country's border regions where citizens are finding ways to communicate with family members outside of the country. 

The increasing exchange of information between North Koreans and outsiders is creating a more informed populace, and the government seems to be starting to act on this. Note the contrast in the way Kim Jong-Il’s government handled the past two failed missile launches; they outright lied to their people, and then diverted questions about the launch by blaring patriotic songs, and showing videos of Kim Il-Sung’s life. This time, things were different. 

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Jieun Baek

Currently a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she graduated 2014. Graduated from Harvard College 2009 as a Government concentrator, where interest in North Korea sparked. Love PolicyMic. Always open to a good conversation!

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