One widely held assumption about North Korea is that its entire population of nearly 25 million people is zombie-like and moves in lockstep with Kim, as epitomized in mass rallies. While the country is indeed a sealed nation, North Korea is divided into a ruling elite class, with the remaining 99 percent scraping by on food rations, small private farms and pockets of free enterprise in North Korea's large black markets, which dot the country.
Of late, Kim has cracked down average North Korean citizens trying to flee. The country's borders have been sealed for decades, and getting caught with outside information or technology, often smuggled through China, is a punishable offense.
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So while the Cold War has dissolved, rogue North Korea, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, has steadied on. Inside its ruling class that includes top government officials, there's a massive organizational chart of leaders and deputy leaders. And it's from this bureaucratic, ruling machinery that Kim manages and demands loyalty.
The north has since managed an improbable three-generation lineage. And all three men have done so by instilling and using fear.
Two years ago, in December 2013, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. At the time, Jang was one of North Korea's most powerful individuals among the ruling elite. Described by one Korea expert as a "prince maker" to CNBC, Jang's execution was largely about managing the power of North Korea's 1 percent, who enjoy privileges like access to imported luxury goods and can in some cases board commercial flights in and out of the country.
Jang had amassed one of the north's largest and most powerful group of state trading firms. And Jang's execution eliminated, arguably, the most influential senior party official remaining from Kim's father's era, according to a 2013-14 report from the Pentagon to Congress.
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Jang also pinpointed one of North Korea's growing weaknesses: lack of economic reform. While the ruling elite has achieved a degree of financial independence from the government, the 99 percent rely on black markets for rice, beer, clothing, school supplies and outside information. The markets can be lively, and transactions are done using cash including Chinese currency. Despite a food ration system, North Korea could not feed its own people without the black markets, according to experts and defectors.
"Most people are now involved in the black market," Yeon-mi Park, a North Korean defector, told CNBC in 2014. "If they don't go to the black market to do business, they cannot survive," she said. Park has since authored a book on her escape, "In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom."
Last month, a top North Korean aide died in a car accident, according to the country's official news media, though there's speculation about that account of his disappearance.
Among Korea watchers, there's whispering about the probability of traffic accidents in a country with outdated roads and infrastructure. Basics like electricity are a luxury. Lower-floor apartment units are coveted as they reliably can be accessed by stairs. Elevators usually don't work.