Seoul: Kim Jong Un has spent the three years since his father’s death tightening his grip on power, leaving the Supreme Leader better positioned to achieve Kim Jong Il’s dream of deploying nuclear weapons.

Kim visited a Pyongyang mausoleum where Kim Jong Il and his grandfather Kim Il Sung are housed to mark Wednesday’s third anniversary of the death of his father, the official Korean Central News Agency said. He was accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and senior officials. Under its current leader and in defiance of international sanctions, North Korea has improved its nuclear technology and may be close to mounting a missile with a nuclear warhead.

“Most folks assume that additional nuclear and missile tests are needed to further refine and test their offensive capabilities," Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, said by email. “I believe it is still a matter of when, not if."

North Korea proving it could launch a nuclear-tipped missile across the Pacific could lend more urgency to efforts to restart aid-for-disarmament talks stalled since 2008. Unveiling the technology to the world would also help the younger Kim establish his own legacy and help him emerge from the shadow of his father, who died suddenly with little time to groom Kim for the role.

South Korean defence minister Han Min Koo said last month at parliament that the North may have made “considerable" progress in miniaturizing bombs. While Kim hasn’t yet deployed a ballistic missile that can hit the mainland US, “he’s showing us the signs that he’s trying to get there," admiral Samuel Locklear, head of US forces in the Pacific, said in a Bloomberg Government interview in September.

Defying sanctions

North Korea routinely tests short-range missiles that could reach Japan as a United Nations ban and sanctions aimed at denying the country weapons technology have had limited effect. Satellite images show the country has begun renovating its long- range rocket site, last used in late 2012, raising concerns that it may be closer to testing a missile that could reach the US.

‘The regime wants to be a true nuclear power, not just in name,’’ Chang Yong Seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said by phone. “North Korea still has a lot of technical improvements to make in the ability to miniaturize and deliver nuclear bombs, not to mention making them go off more reliably."

Saber rattling

Kim has recently stepped up his nuclear saber rattling, threatening to conduct the nation’s fourth nuclear test after a UN human-rights committee voted last month to hold the regime accountable for crimes against humanity. On Tuesday, its foreign ministry said the US would face North Korea’s “toughest counteraction" for human rights criticism.

Commercial satellite images taken in late October didn’t indicate preparations for an immediate test at its Punggye-ri detonation site, according to 38North, a website that monitors the regime. At its Yongbyon complex north of Pyongyang the North has been enriching uranium that may offer a second track to developing nuclear arms in addition to plutonium, according to the Institute for Science and International Security.

Kim began his formal apprenticeship slightly more than a year before his father died of a heart attack, turning him into the country’s new supreme leader. He purged his way to absolute authority by executing officials, including his uncle and deputy Jang Song Thaek in December 2013. This year Kim executed about 10 party officials on charges including graft and watching South Korean soap operas, said South Korean lawmakers.

‘Fresh blood’

“The Supreme Leaders cannot survive without purges like Dracula could not survive without fresh blood," Leonid Petrov, a Korea studies researcher at the Australian National University, said in an email. “Political purges help top leaders feel secure and unchallenged, while the rest of the population feels avenged for the misery ostensibly caused by the hand-picked ‘enemies of the people.’’

The executions mirror the purge his father conducted following the 1994 death of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung and if history is a guide, more may be coming. Three years after the end of an official mourning period for Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il executed a senior agricultural official and sent loyalists around for three years to weed out spies.

Kim is far younger than his father was when he took power, yet health problems could undermine his hold, despite his youth. He appeared with a cane in mid-October after staying out of public view for six weeks in his longest absence as leader, fanning speculation from his being sidelined by gout to being overthrown in a coup.

Health problems

‘‘If Kim’s health problems such as severe obesity and diabetes worsen and force him to stop public activities over a protracted period and cause problems in his carrying out work, unrest may arise among the leadership and his control over the elite may weaken," Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said in an emailed report.

Kim has no known child old enough to succeed him should he become incapacitated. Official media last month identified his sister Kim Yo Jong as a deputy director in the Workers’ Party, showing her with a political title for the first time and signalling Kim Jong Un may be trying to consolidate his family’s dynastic rule.

“Blood is thicker than water, so it will be immediate family members who will be instrumental in helping the young emperor keep the cards closer to his chest," Petrov said. Bloomberg