This month, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un marks a decade since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, 2011. At the time, Kim Jong Un had been in the public eye for only a year, following his September 2010 appointment as vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Though little was known about him then, Kim Jong Un’s grooming as future leader could have begun as early as late 2008.
Some observers speculated that a 27-year-old with no leadership experience would have to share power with guardians or be guided by regents. Others hoped that Kim Jong Un, who was educated partly in Switzerland, would implement economic and political reforms that would change the direction of the secretive authoritarian state.
Ten years later, Kim Jong Un is still at the helm of North Korea—and the country has neither collapsed nor opened up. Instead, Kim Jong Un has consolidated power domestically, built up North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, and improved the country’s relations with its traditional ally and largest trading partner, China. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed a major challenge to the country’s economy and could potentially cause a major health crisis, Kim Jong Un today appears more confident than ever.