April 21, 2022

Loyalty for Luxury: How the Kim Family Buys Support From North Korean Elites

By Jason Bartlett

As decades of heavy U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions and financial restrictions continue to isolate North Korea from the global economy, the Kim family employs a mix of fear tactics and gift giving to secure loyalty from the country’s elites. In 2013, Kim Jong Un shocked the world by ordering the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, as well as several other top North Korean political leaders, for their alleged role in attempting to undermine his rule. He continued this trend of familicide in 2017 when he ordered the assassination of his own half-brother in a Malaysian airport via a VX nerve agent so powerful that it is banned under the 1993 chemical weapons convention. However, in certain other instances, Kim has sought to appeal to the materialistic side of the elite class as opposed to toying with their mortality.

Despite the famous North Korean song “Socialism Is the Only Way” performed by singers allegedly handpicked by Kim himself, the Kim family has a long history of rewarding North Korean elites with luxury apartments, designer bags, vehicles, and watches. Most recently, in mid-April Kim unveiled a new “luxurious residential district” for top loyalists in downtown Pyongyang. According to North Korean state media, Jo Yong Won, the new secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, stated that “Before anybody else, those who diligently support the Party and the state should enjoy the best life.” His impassioned speech confirmed claims that blind loyalty to the Kim regime amongst the elites is often rewarded with luxury goods and better living conditions.

The Kim family will likely continue to use a mix of fear tactics and gift giving to secure loyalty from the elite class.

One of the most notable recipients of this loyalty-for-luxury exchange is the country’s most famous state news anchor, Ri Chun Hee. In in a recent video, Kim is seen ushering Ri through her newly gifted home as she clutches onto his arm smiling and thanking him. Allegedly once referred to as a “national treasure” by Kim, Ri has represented the face of North Korean media and its inflammatory commentary for over 40 years, ranging from reporting the death of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung in 1994 to North Korea’s first nuclear weapon test in 2006. Her frequent appearances in public alongside Kim and their visible closeness in videos released by North Korean state media suggest that the purchase and distribution of luxury goods, including properties, is a preferred method used by the Kim family to reward its loyalists when economic sanctions restrict other perks, such as international travel and foreign investments.

Read the full article from The Diplomat.

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