After being mentored by one of history’s more ruthless dictators, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un spent his first year in power kicking North Korea’s tires. He put its citizens through a wringer of drills, parades, maneuvers and alerts. He also tested the region and the world with missile launches and, in early 2013, a nuclear detonation. But he seems to have moved on to the extravagance phase — partying on a pleasure island, adopting a wayward former NBA player — without perhaps dwelling enough on survival. The detention of an American tourist and the killing of his uncle Jang Song Thaek jeopardized much needed business contracts and foreign-currency streams. These actions also distanced China, a key ally, and bolstered South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s hardening line with the North.
Most important, Kim’s disregard for a desperately poor citizenry raises the eternal North Korean question: How much suffering can human beings tolerate? Unless he starts taking care of his people, the young generalissimo may be the first Kim to find out.
Johnson is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son