Make that Dr. Kim Jong-un.
North Korea has long been known for its love of titles for its leaders. Mr. Kim’s grandfather, the nation’s founder, was known as the Great Leader; his son, the Dear Leader. The country seems not yet to have decided on the same kind of moniker for Mr. Kim — settling for workaday titles like marshal of the military. But now a university in Malaysia has bestowed upon the 30-year-old leader an honorary doctorate that allows him to spruce up his title count.
If the North Korean state news agency has it right, the particular doctorate is perhaps as much of a surprise for those outside the isolated nation as the honor itself. Dr. Kim, it says, is now a doctor of economics. The news report does not mention that he oversees one of the world’s poorest and most dysfunctional economies.
The university that did the honors, a private school known by the acronym HELP, took the action as a way of “building a bridge to reach the people” of North Korea, according to the president of the university, Paul Chan. He has since come under an onslaught of criticism online for honoring a man who Western and South Korean intelligence officials say appears comfortable as the ruler of the brutal police state he inherited, and who continually defies the world’s calls to dismantle his country’s nuclear arsenal. (An announcement on the school’s Facebook page does not specify what doctorate the North Korean leader was awarded.)
The university, whose initials stand for Higher Education Learning Philosophy, elevated Mr. Kim to Dr. Kim during “a simple ceremony” in the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur this month, according to the statement by Mr. Chan on Facebook.
The North Korean ambassador received the certificate on Mr. Kim’s behalf, and the event was covered in the propaganda-filled North Korean media, which reports acknowledgment from abroad for its leaders as proof of the adoration it says they enjoy around the world.
One of North Korean diplomats’ main duties over the years had been persuading foreign cities and universities to give honorary degrees and citizenship to Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The elder Kims received such honors from schools and cities in countries like Russia and Peru.
“To me, the conferment of an honorary doctorate to his excellency Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is building a bridge to reach the people,” Mr. Chan said, calling his school’s decision a “soft constructive” approach. The North’s Korean Central News Agency said HELP University recognized Mr. Kim’s “untiring efforts for the education of the country and the well-being of its people.”
When Mr. Kim inherited the leadership of the dynastic regime after his father’s death in late 2011, some outside analysts hoped that the young leader would guide his country toward openness. Under him, North Korea increased efforts to attract foreign investment, especially from China. But it has also tightened its control of the border with China, which has served as a conduit for outside information to flow into the isolated country, and has provoked the world by launching long-range rockets and conducting a nuclear test.
His father left Mr. Kim with a country in which the state’s mismanagement of the economy had helped drive a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
During his first speech as leader in April 2012, Mr. Kim said that he would “never let the people tighten their belts again.” He has since introduced some changes in collective farms and factories intended to increase productivity, according to South Korean news media and recent visitors to the North. But his policy of reviving the economy while “simultaneously” strengthening the nation’s nuclear weapons programs has already set off a series of economically damaging United Nations sanctions.
Despite international aid and gradual improvements in the North’s grain production in recent years, more than a quarter of North Korean children under age 5 live with chronic malnourishment, according to surveys by the United Nations and international aid groups. And having electricity remains a distant dream for much of the population.
On the Facebook page of HELP University, critics have castigated the awarding of the degree. One person criticized the university for rewarding “one of the most evil men on the planet.” Another called the school “beyond HELP.” Others, though, supported the university’s initiative.
But Mr. Chan said he believed North Korea would open up “in the next six years or so,” as Myanmar recently did.
“Everyone will rush in to offer assistance and investment,” he said. “I am just a bit ahead of them.”