Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - Entering The Family Business

Kim Jong-un with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at the opening of the Rungra People's Pleasure Ground on July 25, 2012. Image via KCNA.

Part II - Entering the Family Business

Death and a Funeral

Kim Jong-il died on December 17, 2011, at the age of 70. Official reports say he died from a heart attack at 8:30 am while on his armored train touring sites in Pyongyang. Outside reports claim that he died in a “fit of rage” over serious construction issues with the massive Huichon hydroelectric power station. While this story hasn’t been confirmed, it is known that the Huichon power station (the primary hydroelectric dam in a series of dams and power plants on the Chongchon River) took much longer to build than anticipated and was beset by complications over the years.

It is interesting to note that Kim Jong-un did not attend the opening ceremony of the dam in April 2012. The dam was a major national project that saw Jong-il visit the site eight times during construction, and for Kim Jong-un to not take part could suggest that he was still upset over the circumstances that led to his father’s death.

As with the embellishment of Kim Jong-il’s birth, the North Korean version of his death was just as colorful and improbable, declaring that "the sky glowed red above the sacred Mount Paektu" and that the ice covering the crater lake at the summit cracked so loudly it "[shook] the Heavens and the Earth."

Official reporting of his death didn’t occur until 51 hours after the event. What palace intrigue went on at the time isn’t known. Despite any grumblings about another generational succession, and even though Kim Jong-un didn’t have decades to construct a solid power base, he had nonetheless been publicly “crowned” as the next leader and he did have powerful people working on his behalf. There would be no discarding the hereditary succession process that had held North Korea up for generations.

Removing any doubts as to which Kim family member was now in charge, Kim Jong-un was listed as the first person on the list of the official 232-member funeral committee. In traditional communist practice, the higher your rank in a funeral committee, the higher your rank is regarded in the ruling party and government. This was the case for Stalin during Vladimir Lenin’s funeral and it was the case for Kim Jong-il during the funeral of Kim Il-sung.

Of note, Kim’s uncle Jang Song-taek was listed as #19. Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho was No. #4. As we will see later, both men would play important roles in the transition and both men would come to regret it.

Absent an immediate coup, as some tabloids considered possible, Kim Jong-un carried out his familial and state duties to hold a funeral for his father which took place on December 28, 2011.

With all of the somber pomp and circumstance Pyongyang could muster, thousands stood out in the snow as Kim Jong-il’s coffin was carried on top of a US-built 1976 Lincoln Continental, with Kim Jong-un walking alongside with seven other high-ranking officials who were known by the foreign press as the "Gang of Seven".

The official mourning period lasted for three years and at the end of those three years, Kim would have to emerge as the undisputed leader of North Korea if the dynasty was to survive.

Completing the Transition

In the three years leading up to his death, Kim Jong-il had to focus more and more of his time on creating a transition plan for Kim Jong-un. Balancing the competing factions of the military and Workers’ Party and trying to manage smaller poles of influence within the Kim family and general leadership harkened back to the 20-year succession orchestration he himself had to go through before Kim Il-sung’s death. If it failed now, no one could predict what might happen.

Undoubtedly, there were those who wanted to influence the young Kim Jong-un. His uncle, Jang Song-taek, was the most powerful relative in the country and he had his own views on how the country should move forward. There were also older generals and traditionalists who wanted to ensure the dynasty’s continued rule through absolutism, and who rejected any notion of Chinese-style reform, as they saw it to be a threat to their own survival.

Many outside commentators questioned whether Kim Jong-un would be able to control the country and wondered if the regime might even collapse.  National Committee on North Korea founding member Dr. Alexandre Y. Mansourov said, “They believed Kim Jong Un’s young age and inexperience would make it easier for the time-tested party apparatchiks and Songun (military-first)-accustomed generals to manipulate the young ruler, to influence his decisions, and to control his policies from behind the scenes.”

However, we know that in the time before Kim Jong-il’s death, that there were purges and even executions to shore up Kim Jong-un’s support among the military, with younger generals being promoted up the ranks as they would be more loyal than those who served for decades under previous regimes. And we know that every diplomatic effort was being made to ensure a successful transition to Supreme Leader, including through seeking Russia’s and China’s buy-in for the move.

Jang Song-taek became a crucial link connecting Kim Jong-un with the various economic and trade organizations within the country and would also help him in the realm of foreign policy. It is suspected that Jang was actually in charge of DPRK policy regarding the United States at the time. Additionally, Jang had oversight of the various internal security agencies that would be essential for a smooth ascension to power.

Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of the North Korean Army's general staff, helped orchestrate the elevation of loyal officers within the military. He appeared with Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il prior to his death, and he continued to serve by Kim Jong-un’s side after his succession on several occasions to tour military installations and related sites.

Jang, Ri, and others formed a kind of guiding committee while Kim’s grooming was ongoing and then went on to head an informal collective leadership throughout the transition post-2011.

As part of the pre-transition plan, Kim Jong-un was created Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the Third Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea on September 28, 2010. This firmly placed him in the “No. 2” position within the military. He was also appointed to the Central Committee of the Workers' Party.

After Kim Jong-il’s death, Kim was not immediately proclaimed chairman of this or that for each of the multiple positions he was set to inherit. He did gain several key titles soon after, but the full title collecting process was a byzantine operation that occurred over the following couple of years, with each new position signaling his increasing grasp on power. And that would signal to those now holding his hand that they may not always be required.

The next procedural step was for Kim to become the First Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, to which he was elected on April 11, 2012. It was at this Fourth Party Conference that Kim was also officially made the Chairman of the CMC, a position which had been left vacant after the death of Kim Jong-il. Later in the year, Kim was also given the title of Marshal of the DPRK and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

Regarding attempts to influence Kim Jong-un, one year after his rise to power Dr. Mansourov said, “[t]hese predictions proved to be close to the mark on the family side, only partially correct on the party side, largely wrong on the government side, and absolutely wrong on the military side.

Though Kim was managing to collect all of the necessary titles and positions needed to be the sole leader of the DPRK, he needed more than just a long list of appellations after his name. He needed to consolidate real power from those who wheedled it in the past, and to put an end to any possible competing claims to his authority.

With the official process of transition nearing an end, it was time to become a dictator.


Consolidating Power

Jang Song-taek handcuffed in court. Screenshot from KCTV news report.

Although the ruling Kim is supposed to have absolute power, as in any functional system, working power is dispersed among individuals, factions, and agencies. There remains a singular “font of power” – an individual in whom all authority is technically vested – but no individual can successfully run a nation on their own.

North Korea may be set up to have an all-powerful dictator, but the realities of governance and inter-personal rivalries will always mean that power becomes dispersed among different branches of government and those who lead them. Higher ranking elites can therefore gather considerable influence over policy and can seek to control the national leader himself.

As such, relying solely on his family name to press his legitimacy and to shield himself from threats was not enough. Kim had to engage in harsher measures when suspicions (real or imagined) arose about others who might threaten his direct rule.

Within two years of Kim Jong-il’s funeral, five of the “Gang of Seven” senior officials who walked with Kim Jong-un beside the hearse were purged.

Among those were Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-taek and Vice Marshal Ro Yong-ho.

Jang Song-taek married Kim Il-sung’s sister in 1972. As part of the inner family, he was able to amass considerable influence over the decades, and by the time of Kim Jong-il’s death, he was the Chief of the Central Administrative Department of the Workers' Party of Korea, had been created a general, and became 2nd Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jang also held multiple other posts and oversaw various economic and trade interests. All of this gave him access to nearly every sector of the North Korean government and economy, but also enabled him to build relationships with foreign countries, particularly China.

Jang was one of several high-ranking officials charged with assisting the young Kim during his short apprenticeship and was supposed to help maintain stability during the transition after Kim Jong-il died. Throughout this time, Jang was able to secure ever-greater positions within the government, rising from #19 in the funeral committee to #5 among the Party’s Central Committee Politburo Standing Committee in less than a year.

His activities exposed him to criticism regarding his own apparent autonomous level of influence, and also placed him in the middle of internal power struggles between military-controlled enterprises and those government-controlled enterprises headed by Jang and his allies. This and his alleged sympathy for Kim Jong-nam created the environment for his downfall.

Hints of cracks in the relationship between Jang and Kim Jong-un may have first publicly appeared on Nov. 4, 2012. He was appointed chairman of the newly created State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. While this may look like yet another promotion superficially, it was actually the first move to sideline him by giving him more responsibilities but responsibilities of little significance.

Then in December, Jang, who was the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, wasn’t invited to a meeting of top officials to address UN sanctions. During which, Kim Jong-un made the decision to “take substantial and high-profile important state measures” in response to the sanctions.

Making his precarious position even more obvious was when he was passed over by Choe Ryong-hae to be Kim’s first special envoy to China in May 2013. Choe had been a protégé of Jang Song-taek’s.

Although Jang survived previous rounds of purges and demotions, his time was up.

Two of his aides were executed in November of that year and thereafter Jang wasn’t seen in public until he was publicly expelled from the Party on December 8. He was then given a show trial on December 12 and quickly executed. In the 2,700-word official press release regarding his downfall, Jang was accused of everything from embezzling funds to undermining the cult of personality to working with others to effect a coup. Regardless of the veracity of the alleged crimes, his life and legacy were over.

Lest we see Jang Song-taek in a purely sympathetic light, he was likely responsible for the downfall of another, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho.

Ri had been a leading figure organizing the military’s rallying around Kim Jong-un. He was responsible for numerous promotions of younger officers who would be loyal to Kim, and he had been a close confidant for years.

Ri was relieved from all of his posts on July 15, 2012, during a meeting of the WPK Central Committee’s Political Bureau. A list of his posts included being a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK, and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The official reason given was “illness”, which, according to NK Leadership Watch, can be a euphemism for insubordination or corruption. Ri’s last known public appearance was on July 8 during a visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace alongside Kim Jong-un. The exact reason(s) for his loss of favor isn’t known, but it may have been the result of changes in policy and influence between the political leadership and the military leadership. If so, this would also have been part of Kim’s desire to move away from the Songun (military-first) policy and toward a policy that reestablished control of the economy to the WPK. As Ri was a proponent of Songun, he would have been placed in direct political conflict with Kim Jong-un and with Jang Song-taek, who also favored reform (perhaps favored too radical reform as evidenced by his death a year after Ri’s).

Ri's ultimate fate is still not publicly known. It is rumored that he was either killed during a firefight with personnel loyal to Kim Jong-un or that he was executed soon after his dismissal. Either way, he has not been seen since.

Following these actions and the successful December 12, 2012 launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 satellite, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Region in April 2013, and conducting two successful nuclear tests in 2013, along with the economic reforms that moved the country away from Kim Jong-il’s Songun policy to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin (parallel development) policy (which will be discussed in detail in future articles), Kim Jong-un demonstrated he had gained full authority over the government and military, and that he could freely exercise power.

A New First Family

In any hereditary system, the main business of the family business is having kids. Without heirs to carry on your legacy, the regime collapses and you become the ultimate failure.

Kim Il-sung was married twice. First to Kim Jong-suk who died in 1949 and was Kim Jong-il’s mother. And secondly to Kim Song-ae, who died in 2014. Kim Song-ae was given the official title of “First Lady” in 1963 but that term stopped being used in 1974. The end of the official use of the title corresponds with Kim Jong-il’s own rise in power, as she was not his mother and as he spent years reinforcing his own direct line within the Kim family personality cult. 

Kim Jong-il, who had two wives and two known mistresses, left the position of First Lady vacant and was never seen in public with any female partner; although, the women would occasionally meet with domestic and foreign dignitaries without him. It was Kim Jong-il’s lack of a public family life that helped shield the Korean people from knowledge of Kim Jong-un’s existence for most of his life.

Establishing even more contrast with his father, Kim Jong-un would not shy away from portraying himself as a family man. Kim married popular singer Ri Sol-ju in 2009. Particularly in the first years of Kim's rule, she would often accompany him on guidance tours and gained an international following for her modern fashion style. Ri has been compared to former U.S First Lady Jackie Kennedy.

She gave birth to a son in 2010 and then finally, in 2018, she received the long-dormant title, “Respected First Lady”. She received this title soon before attending the DPRK-ROK summit that year and became the first Kim spouse to meet a foreign head of state, South Korean president Moon Jae-In.

The daily activities of Kim’s family are unknown. Ri is seen less often than in the past, likely busy being a mother, and she is rarely away from her husband when she is seen. And when not on "On the Spot Guidance" tours, Kim is known to spend a lot of time at the family palace in Wonsan. 

This compound was Kim’s favorite during childhood and offers a wide range of leisure activities. He also renovated the large Ryongsong palace complex in Pyongyang, which is the official family residence constructed by Kim Il-sung in 1983. Changes, including the addition of horse-riding tracks, have also been noted at other less frequented villas around the country.

Doing her duty to provide an heir and spares, Ri gave birth again in 2012, this time to a girl named Ju Ae. And a third child was born in 2017 according to South Korean intelligence reports. During Dennis Rodman’s 2013 visit to North Korea, he claimed to have met their daughter Ju Ae and said that Kim Jong-un was a “good dad”. Of course, the value judgments of a man who has spent very little time with Kim and who seems to willingly ignore the country’s vast prison system can only be given so much weight.

While still too young to rule if Kim Jong-un died today, these children do provide a future lineage for the regime and help give a sense of stability among the elites in Pyongyang.

It is likely that these children, who are not seen in public, will one day be sent to Switzerland (or perhaps Russia or China) for their educations and that they will experience their formative years in a manner similar to that of their father’s. Afterward, they will attend elite institutions within North Korea before being given roles in government and beginning their own grooming processes as the next generation.

Growing the Cult

Kim Jong-un receiving the crowd’s praises from the observation pavilion overlooking Kim Il-sung Square during the September 2021 parade celebrating the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic Republic of Korea. Image via KCNA.

North Korea’s cult of personality is the most pervasive and advanced expression of a personality cult in modern history. The roots of a nascent cult can be traced back to before the founding of the state, but it really began to take hold after Kim Il-sung’s victory over “factionalists” within the government through the 1950s and 1960s. Kim Jong-il was able to clinch the role of successor by further expanding the cult and creating a legal system and culture that deified his father.

Today, it is not unreasonable to say that the existence of the government is predicated on the existence of the Kim family. The highest body of law isn’t the constitution but the Ten Principles for a Monolithic Ideological System which explicitly demands loyalty to the Kim family above all else. But even the national constitution itself places Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in the role of “eternal leaders” and asserts that North Korea is based on the ideologies put forward by the Kim family.

While the blind adulation of the masses may indeed decline with each generation, the heir of the Mt. Paektu bloodline is still the supreme ruler. He is father, mother, and the source of all power in the country.

Extreme stories about the people believing the Kims can read minds or don’t require unseemly bodily functions may make for interesting headlines, but the reality is clear enough without the need for embellishment: without the Kims, there is no North Korea.

And so, it has been imperative that Kim Jong-un not only find his place within the existing cult that surrounds his grandfather and father, but that one is established for himself.

One thing commentators immediately remarked on regarding Kim’s appearance is how much he looked like a young version of Kim Il-sung. Connecting the young Kim to the nation’s father has been of paramount importance to bolstering his otherwise thin resume. As defector Kim Kwang Jin discussed in his 2011 paper for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, “Acting in his father’s name, Kim Jong-Il was able to seize and retain power. His son, Kim Il-Sung’s grandson, must now do the same thing. The regime knows that this basis for power succession cannot be used so easily again, and is rushing to tie the young man to his grandfather’s political legacy.”

Kim Kwang Jin went on to say, “To facilitate the transfer power to Kim Jong-Eun, Kim Jong-Il again sought to gain legitimacy for his son from Kim Il-Sung…Every image of Kim Jong-Eun was deliberately designed to imitate his late grandfather.” And that this manufactured image of Kim Jong-un as a kind of Kim Il-sung Version 2.0 “had the effect of pre-empting any opposition, since the second incarnation of Kim Il-Sung cannot be challenged.”

From his dress and outward style to his public persona, Kim Jong-un has done just about everything possible to remind North Koreans that he is indeed the direct descendent of Kim Il-sung.

To further enhance Kim's position within the cult, over the years, his mother has been given various titles such as "The Mother of Pyongyang", and "The Mother of Great Songun Korea”, elevating her within the family pantheon. She was also the subject of at least one state-sponsored documentary The Mother of Great Songun Korea.

Kim himself has received multiple titles and epithets such as Dear Respected Comrade, Brilliant Star, Beloved Father, Peerlessly Great Man, and has been described by the state as “the only and unique successor and leader of the Juche Revolution”.

One of the first physical manifestations of the cult came ca. 2012 in the form of a 560-meter-long sign on a hillside above the Samsu Hydroelectric Dam which proclaimed, “Long live Songun Korea's General Kim Jong Un!” The word “Songun” was later changed to “Juche” in 2020, as a reflection of the change in Kim’s policies away from Songun.

Other earlier works to build up his own cult revolved around elevating ancestors and reinforcing his connections to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. These took the form of airing documentaries, giving even more titles to Kim Jong-il (like making him Eternal General Secretary of the Party and updating the constitution to include Jong-il as one of the “eternal leaders of Juche Korea”), and requiring the people to attend ideological lectures. Through this, Kim Jong-un’s own position was magnified and his legitimacy to rule the country became even more unquestionable. After all, who could oppose the anointed son of eternal beings?

To reinforce this in a way inescapable to people’s daily lives, he had murals of Kim Jong-il erected in every county seat, bronze statues of Jong-il added next to the ones of Kim Il-sung, and he had the text on thousands of Towers of Immortality changed to reflect the “eternal life” of Jong-il as well. 

Kim Jong-un’s cult has been established, books have been commissioned, songs have been written, and people swear fealty to the man not to the constitution or rule of law, but in keeping with tradition, we shouldn’t expect large monuments to him in any great number until after his own death. For now, he is a living deity and continually studying his words will be the primary form of (required) “worship” for every man, woman, and child for years to come.

Developing His Own Style

Every new leader, elected or otherwise, tries to leave their own mark on the role and differentiate themselves from the previous ruler in one way or another.

While still being a ruthless dictator, it must be acknowledged that Kim Jong-un has taken up the role of “Kim Il-sung 2.0” seriously. Unlike his father, he does not shy away from public speaking, and he has done something his father never explicitly did, admit when there have been failures.

Doing this creates a beneficial situation for Kim whereby officials and bureaucrats can be more easily scapegoated for failures and Kim can remain above the fray as the caring leader. Together with visiting the sites of natural disasters (such as after the summer floods of 2020), this gives him the public image of a concerned and accessible leader, which then reinforces the cult of personality’s assertion that the Kims are fatherly figures who labor day and night over the cares of the common man.

As Atsuhito Isozaki, Faculty of Law at Keio University, noted in his 2020 article Characteristics of Kim Jong-un’s Leadership, Kim has proven himself to be pragmatic when it serves the regime, continually calling for the rejection of “formalism”, and has demonstrated a contempt for the overly rosy government reports of the past in favor of greater directness and accuracy.

He also seems to understand the fact that genuine loyalty and devotion to the Kim family has waned over the years. By channeling Kim Il-sung and making himself repeatedly available in times of crisis, he can inculcate in the people a deeper sense of loyalty and willingness to obey the latest Supreme Leader.


He began demonstrating this new leadership style almost immediately. His first attempt at a satellite launch failed, a failure Pyongyang admitted, and he didn’t shy away from criticizing past policies that left people hungry. He has carried on with this policy of relative transparency through to the present day.

During the 8th WPK Congress in January 2021, Kim told the assembled delegates that “though the period of implementing the Five-Year Strategy for the National Economic Development ended last year, almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives” and that officials should “be bold enough to recognize the mistakes, which, if left unaddressed, will grow into bigger obstacles.”

He has further acknowledged corruption within the government more than once and made mention of ongoing food shortages.

While honesty and transparency are typically seen as good qualities of government, within North Korea, they raise the risk of highlighting contradictory realities. The government reality of a “strong and prosperous nation”, with occasional difficulties vs. the reality experienced by most people of never-ending privation with occasional benefits. This could lead to a greater awakening of the people of the state’s failures to provide even the most basic necessities that all people expect of their governments.

Regardless, Kim seems confident enough in his approach and has taken steps to quell any internal dissent as well as to end the flood of outside information that was unleashed after the breakdown in order following the 1994-98 famine.

Defections are at all-time lows since the famine and the border has been sealed more tightly than at any point in the country’s history. Kim has also directed the government to take measures against foreign cultural influences.

Despite some positive habits, Kim’s dictatorial nature extends far beyond punishing teens for watching South Korean dramas.

Not only did he execute his own uncle, but he also went after his half-brother Kim Jong-nam.

Kim Jong-nam had been seen by some as a possible replacement to Kim Jong-un should a coup or regime change ever happen, and these things were openly discussed in foreign media. Making matters worse, Jong-nam had publicly criticized the North Korean government and Kim Jong-un.

In a move of ultimate confidence, Kim Jong-un ordered the public assassination of Jong-nam using a banned chemical weapon, through foreign agents he had recruited to carry out the killing all while Jong-nam was in another country – Malaysia.

On February 13, 2017, a group of women from Vietnam and Indonesia were tricked into placing a cloth covered in VX nerve agent onto Kim Jong-nam’s face while he was at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Within minutes, he collapsed into unconsciousness and died soon after. The event shocked the world due to its brazenness and cruelty.

According to Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, in Kim's eyes, killing his half-brother and uncle placed him on the same footing as his father and grandfather, and it demonstrated his "strategic intention" to strengthen one-man rule in the country.


Despite hopes that his exposure to Western education and to the ideals of capitalism, human rights, and the rule of law would have given the world an “enlightened” ruler of North Korea, it has become clear that he has taken the lessons of the modern world only to modernize systems of oppression.

By the time of the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea in 2016, Kim Jong-un had not only managed to successfully complete the transition and emerged as the country’s true supreme leader (with any remaining rumors of a de facto regency or of him not having the skills required fully squashed), he also oversaw substantial progress over the country’s nuclear and ballistic programs, embarked on billion’s worth of construction and tourism projects, successfully established an improved relationship with South Korea through the 2012 Olympics (an improved relationship South Korea would work hard to maintain), and he would be confronted with new challenges on the international stage as the United States elected a president viewed by many as just as brash as Kim Jong-un.

With ten years of rule to look back on, no one can doubt that Kim has created a leadership style far different than that of his father’s. And that he has taken well to the family business, as whatever real improvements have been seen, the core of the regime remains violent and willing to dispose of anyone deemed a threat. 

~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series.

Supporters at lower levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will receive a mention as seen below.


I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/13/2021

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade - Gassing Up the Country

This is the first of the supplemental articles for the Kim Jong-un First Decade in Power series. It deals with vehicle ownership, the supply of fuel, and sanctions avoidance issues.

Photograph of the Pyongyang-Kwanmun gas station via Wikimapia.


I have written about this topic more than once as it intersects with multiple areas of research, but one thing that has been made clear is that the rise of the modern gas station within North Korea and changes toward ‘car culture’ have largely been a product of Kim Jong-un’s rule.

Thanks to the publication of the AccessDPRK 2021 Pro Map and newer Google Earth imagery for most towns in North Korea, I can now provide the most detailed picture yet of the country’s fueling infrastructure; a picture that has been largely painted in Kim Jong-un’s first decade in power.

Of the 157 gas stations that I have found, 149 of them have known construction dates. And of those, 63.8% were constructed since Kim Jong-un came to power. Additionally, four of the six stations whose exact year of construction isn’t known were at least constructed on or after 2012, meaning that two-thirds of all gas stations have been built in just the last decade.

While gas stations may not seem like an important topic, in the context of North Korea, they become a window into the country’s economy and reforms as they sit at the nexus of the growth of vehicle ownership, car culture, fuel imports, and sanctions avoidance activities.

To service an ever-larger vehicle fleet, whether they’re state-owned or private, easy to access fuel needs to be made available. And to keep those gas stations operational, a steady supply of refined petroleum must also exist.

To cover this issue, this article will be broken down into three main topics: vehicle ownership, gas station construction, and fuel supply and sanctions.


Vehicle Ownership & Car Culture

This is the Peokkugi I Series from North Korea's own Pyeonghwa Motors. Its design is heavily influenced by the Fiat Doblo. Image via Pyeonghwa Motors sales brochure.

The streets of Pyongyang, a city of 3 million, are famous for not being full. Traffic jams are rare and brief, and most people get around by subway or tram service. Outside of the capital, most people have to walk or ride a bicycle. If they have a few extra won, they can jump on the back of a farming truck or military vehicle to make their way. Long journeys are predominantly taken via train.

So it might be surprising for many to know that North Korea has its own automobile industry, of sorts. While North Korea has been producing various vehicles since 1958, it wasn’t until the 2000s that they started to take the idea of manufacturing non-commercial passenger vehicles seriously. 

Established in 2000 as a joint venture with the South Korean-based Unification Church as part of the South’s Sunshine Policy at the time, Pyeonghwa Motors was meant to usher in a new era of not only economic cooperation between the two countries, but also to help fulfill Pyongyang’s desire to have a robust automotive industry.

Pyeonghwa’s plant in Nampo has a nominal capacity of 20,000 cars a year, yet, in most years fewer than 1,000 vehicles were manufactured. Its peak was in 2011 when 1,820 units were made. And like the products of North Korea’s other vehicle plants, their creations are largely Chinese-manufactured, DPRK-assembled car/truck/bus kits. The few models that are predominantly manufactured within the country are merely modified copies of foreign vehicles and still require many foreign parts.

However, even if North Korea has yet to develop its own truly domestic and indigenous car manufacturing base, tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses on North Korean roads come from North Korean factories, and they are in enough numbers as to make up a sizable percentage of North Korea’s entire vehicle fleet. What’s more, the regime has managed to import a number of vehicles over years. Along with the increasing privatization of transportation services (a reported 6,000 taxis are in Pyongyang alone) this has all helped keep urban populations moving.

Regulations were relaxed in 2017 to allow for more car registrations, as most passenger vehicles were still technically owned by state enterprises and lent or leased out. Compared to the annual income of North Koreans, prices are still prohibitively expensive, ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 for most models, but it is estimated that 20% of Pyongyang families now have their own cars thanks to a growing middle class.

As mentioned, an alternative to outright ownership is “leasing” them from a state firm. According to DailyNK, this involves “The owner of the car must pay 150,000 KPW to the enterprise for using their name and to make a working record, and also needs to pay 50,000 KPW each month to the Security Department for a license. In addition, they’ll have to pay more than 300,000 KPW in bribes for various reasons”.

Despite supply challenges and the fact that cars are still a major luxury, the regime has taken steps to normalize driving and to familiarize the next generation with car culture, perhaps in anticipation of broader car ownership in coming years.

In 2017 the government began to build children’s “traffic parks” which are miniaturized city blocks with fake buildings, streets, street signs, and even bridges. Kids are given mock cars to drive (pedal) around with and learn the rules of the road. Most towns have at least one of these parks while a few have had their construction delayed. In total, the AccessDPRK database has located 149 driving parks.

These reforms and other changes also mark a change in ideology, where having your own car isn’t just a decadent part of Western capitalism but can be something to which citizens are implicitly told they can finally aspire to. But to accomplish this, ready access to fuel is needed.


Gas Station Construction

This graph shows the number of identified gas stations constructed each year from 2012 to 2020. It is based on the data found within the AccessDPRK 2021 Map, Pro Version

Unlike in basically every other country on earth, getting fuel (gasoline or diesel) in North Korea has typically been restricted to those operating state-owned and military vehicles. People would get rations or would otherwise need to get permission from their factory, farm, or other work unit. From there, the fuel would have been distributed either from basic fuel tanks on site or would need to come from centralized fuel distribution centers that would send out fuel as needed. An example of one of these large depots can be found at 39.094342° 125.615611°.

Every town had fuel, but the concept of a western-style gas station was mostly unknown, and I have only been able to locate 54 in the whole country that existed prior to 2012. While the centralized supply of fuel seems to have been adequate for most of the country’s history, it was simply too complicated and the sites too remote to be responsive to the increase in private vehicle ownership and in taxi and bus companies.

As the graph above shows, and corresponding with Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power, there was a marked increase in the number of gas stations being constructed each year from six 2012 to a peak of twenty-two in 2017. And while the growth rate peaked in 2017, newly built gas stations have shown up every single year. Additionally, many of the older sites have been renovated and expanded within the same time frame.

While the beginnings of vehicle ownership and the establishment of taxi companies began years earlier, there is no debate that this switch to a more modern system of gas distribution has taken hold and was driven by the Kim Jong-un regime.

Of course, this reform wasn’t done altruistically to make driving around the country easier. The state issues permits for gas station construction and state-owned companies have also been involved in the establishment and operation of new sites, likely resulting in considerable annual revenue. One of the most well-known cases of state ownership is the Air Koryo gas station in Pyongyang’s Kangan District.

Since 2015, the state airline has been trying to diversify itself and may operate several others gas stations. They also run a taxi service and a food company. As NKNews notes, Air Koryo is owned by the military and so these businesses are not only an attempt to gain revenue for the government but for the military in particular.

This image shows two gas stations. The smaller one has existed since before 2004 while the larger facility was constructed from 2012-2014. The smaller station only provides fueling services, but the larger station also has a vehicle maintenance facility. Note: the numerous small, temporary structures in the image are related to a major building project on Saesalim Street, Sadong District.

In terms of design, many of the gas stations are stand-alone structures that only provide fuel and perhaps small consumer goods like snacks or phone cards, which most people around the world would find recognizable. Others are part of larger facilities that include vehicle maintenance services for commercial and passenger vehicles.

In a country where most vehicles are still used for industrial purposes (materials transport, dump trucks, etc.) and where constant vehicle maintenance is required, as most vehicles are decades old, clusters of these stations are occasionally created to handle the demand.

An example of this can be seen at the Potonggang Reservoir in Pyongyang where there are three distinct fueling and maintenance facilities next to each other.

However, despite the clear rise in the number of gas stations, a vision of long highways with gas stations dotting the landscape or where there’s one on every corner in town is still a distant one. South Korea has an estimated 11,800 gas stations. Even when considering the South’s larger population and economy, the fact that North Korea has fewer than 200 is a stark reminder of how far the country must go to eventually become a nation that caters to the driver.

There are very few gas stations along the country’s highways. Along the major Reunification Highway, for the nearly 100 km distance between Sariwon and Kaesong there are no evident gas stations. And in the country’s interior regions there aren’t any of the modern sites outside of major towns. Drivers must rely on the old method of getting refueled and would be well advised to carry an emergency supply of gas with them.

Indeed, the decades of fuel scarcity led to the adoption of wood gasification in countless vehicles. And while modern gas stations are spreading, they still remain largely confined to major cities – particularly those cities involved in international trade. The seven cities of Pyongyang (47), Sunchon (10), Rason (8), Chongjin (7), Hamhung (7), Nampo (6), and Sinuiju (6) hold nearly two-thirds of all gas stations in the country.

Fuel Supply, Sanctions, and Sanctions Avoidance

It is important to note that while gas stations have spread around the country, most places still rely on the more traditional way of getting fuel into vehicles. These fueling compounds can be found all over the country and many have been renovated over the years. This implies that the new gas stations built in the last decade have not merely been replacing an existing system, but that they are creating a net increase in demand.

This need for more petroleum supplies has been demonstrated by the expansion of the Nampo fuel terminal and the construction of storage tanks in other parts of the country as well. In Nampo, since 2018 more than 30 storage tanks have been added or are under construction. 

As North Korea lacks any natural oil reserves, the United Nations has placed sanctions limiting how much it can import as a result of its nuclear and missile programs. This sanctions regime only allows for 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum and 4 million barrels of crude oil products to be imported each year.

To get around sanctions, North Korea has been employing ship-to-ship transfers (STS) and then brings their newly loaded vessels into a home port to offload the illegal petroleum products. Each transfer can provide North Korea with anywhere from 500,000 to over 1 million liters of oil (6,289 barrels).

Based on United Nations reporting and using publicly available ship tracking data, there are six primary vessels engaged in STS activities along with several smaller vessels. Each ship can make numerous transfers a year. In 2020, the US found 32 individual instances of fuel being smuggled to DPRK ships within Chinese waters, while the Chinese government was alerted by the UN to 46 instances of smuggling activities via STS.

All of this adds up to a lot of fuel coming into the country. According to the 2020 UN Panel of Experts report, the US estimates that “under the one-third laden scenario, these deliveries would have amounted to almost three times the total cap of 500,000 barrels set in paragraph 5 of resolution 2397 (2017). Under the half-laden scenario, the deliveries would have amounted to more than four times the cap and, under the fully laden scenario, they would have amounted to almost eight times the cap.” (emphases added)

But ship-to-ship transfers aren’t the only way North Korea can get illicit petroleum. There is an aging but still operational pipeline from China that is owned and operated by China National Petroleum Corp. North Korea’s only functional oil refinery, the Ponghwa Chemical Factory, is also located nearby, enabling them to convert crude oil from the pipeline into other needed products.

While China is party to the UN sanctions against North Korea, enforcement of those sanctions is left up to each member state, and the pipeline is not monitored by independent organizations.

In 2016, an estimated 270,000 tonnes (36,800 barrels) of fuel – both gasoline and diesel – was transferred to North Korea through the pipeline according to official Chinese data. A further 520,000 tonnes (70,900 barrels) of crude oil was also sent. However, customs data isn’t always made available and it has been notoriously unrealizable. What’s more, is the pipeline’s ability to transfer not just crude oil but refined products as well. At full flow, it could send eight times North Korea’s annual legal allotment.

2020 report by The Nautilus Institute reveals that oil transfer via pipeline is still ongoing through this COVID-era, even if other import methods have temporarily been restricted. Its authors estimate that crude oil exports by the Dandong-Sinuiju Pipeline from China in 2019 came to 715,000 tons (approx. 5.2 million barrels), but increased those exports to nearly 750,000 tons (almost 5.5 million barrels) in 2020 – far in excess of UN limits.

The current trade restrictions imposed by Pyongyang due to COVID has likely impacted a range of smuggling activities, but it seems rather clear that North Korea has the networks of ships, allies, and infrastructure to routinely surpass international limits.

And the operation of gas stations is one key to realizing that fact.

Satellite imagery exists of many of the gas stations during different phases of construction. Through these images one can see that each gas station typically has 2-4 (sometimes more) fuel storage tanks. But to err on the side of conservative estimates, I will use two tanks as the average.

Using measurements attained from “Wonsan Station #2” at 39.142021° 127.385198°, I estimate that each fueling tank has a capacity to store 7,733 gallons (184 barrels) of gasoline. If we assume that all of the 103 identified gas stations built in the last decade have the same sized tanks, only have two of them, and are refilled only once a month, then the demand for additional fuel products has risen by 19,115,976 gallons (455,142 barrels) each year of refined petroleum. That’s almost the country’s entire legal import limit just to operate these new gas stations and is based on using conservative estimates.

Busier stations will need more. Numerous gas stations have 4+ storage tanks. Some tanks are larger. Therefore, the actual supply needs could easily be greater.

There are still the other 54 older gas stations, there’s still the centralized distribution network that those in rural areas rely on, there’s still the need for aviation fuel, heavy fuel oil, and the need for supplies for their fishing fleet and military vehicles.

Of course, their refinery can produce refined products, but the point is that nearly half a million barrels of gas is now – newly – in demand, a demand that has not been accounted for by adjusting sanctions levels. A demand, it seems, that can only be realistically met through illicit imports.

~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series.

Supporters at lower levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will receive a mention as seen below.


I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/1/2021

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - A Kim is Born

A young Kim Jong-un with his mother, Ko Yong-hui, in this undated photo from the North Korean documentary The Mother of the Great Songun Joseon which aired on Aug. 24, 2020.

Part I - A Kim is Born

Early Years

The Day of the Shining Star is a holiday commemorating the birth of Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un. On February 16, 1942, Kim Jong-il, it is said, was born on the sacred volcano Mt. Paektu, the spiritual home of all Korean people. This “Paektu bloodline” endows the Kim family with the divine right to rule not just North Korea, but all of Korea.

The truth to Kim Jong-il’s birth is less poetic. He was born a year earlier in 1941, in Russia. But facts rarely get in the way of North Korean hagiographers as they work to turn ordinary stories of their leaders into mythical epics that seek to transform their leaders into demigods and inspire a kind of religious devotion to them.

While there are tales of new stars appearing in the sky to mark the birth of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s importance to the state wasn’t evident until much later in his life, and so his tale has yet to be fully embellished. Lacking shinning stars and double rainbows, the exact circumstances surrounding Kim Jong-un’s birth are unknown, both to the people of North Korea and to the outside world.

Very little biographical information about the Kim family is released to the public and even less information is shared about those Kims who are not currently the leader of the country. Kim Jong-un’s existence wasn’t widely known about until a few years before his father’s death in 2011.

We know that he is the fourth child of Kim Jong-il and was born to his mistress Ko Yong-hui in either 1982 or 1983 and that he was probably born on January 8 (his birthdate has not been confirmed by DPRK sources). We know that from 1993 to 2001 he attended both private and public schools in Switzerland under an assumed name, Pak-un, as part of a carefully constructed fake identity. Although, more recent evidence suggests that he began going to school in 1991.

However, apart from random anecdotes, the memories of his European classmates and from the few defectors who knew him, and what can be gleaned from other sources, relatively little can be known for certain about his life and activities until 2010.

Although Kim Jong-un grew up in the rarified atmosphere of North Korea’s most elite family, among palaces and armored trains, as Kim Jong-il’s third son, he appeared to be destined to live a luxurious but quiet life. Perhaps he would become the head of a political department and sit on various government commissions, but he was never intended to become a public figure, let alone the leader of North Korea.

Spending his youth in the country between the Kim family’s main palace, Ryongsong, and at their seaside compound in Wonsan, the young Kim Jong-un would have enjoyed the rare foods his father procured from abroad, boats and Ski-dos, horse riding, his own “General’s” uniform, models of weapons, and lots of foreign films and video games that were prohibited to the rest of the population. Often alone with his nurse and bodyguards, the young prince could order them about at his whim – and no one dared disobey.

While he did spend time under the care of his aunt, Ko Yong-suk, and with her young son, his childhood was far from normal, and he did not have the kind of tight-knit nuclear family that so many enjoy.

Despite the limited information available, some things all sources agree on: Kim Jong-un loves basketball, particularly the American NBA team the Chicago Bulls, and he also had access to the best electronic gadgets the 1990s had to offer.

Time in Switzerland

It wasn’t until he was sent to Switzerland (as had also been done with his siblings) that he seems to have developed some level of friendship with his foreign classmates, while true friendships in North Korea were all but impossible given the power dynamics between the deified princeling and his subjects (no matter how much older, respected, or accomplished they were).

During his time in Switzerland from ca. 1993 to 2001, one of the schools he attended was the International School of Berne, which cost $20,000 a year in tuition. Like other children at these schools, Kim (rather, Pak Un) was assumed to come from a wealthy but not necessarily important family, and no one realized that he was the child of one of the most notorious leaders in the world until he himself became leader.

His lack of German-language speaking skills and his ridged, constructed life outside of school meant that Kim spoke little about his life to others. Regardless, through his enjoyment of basketball, he was able to build relationships with his classmates and live more “normally” than he could when cloistered inside his Swiss apartments or back in Pyongyang.

Kim’s love of basketball and of former NBA player Dennis Rodman would later come to serve as an opening move in one of the grandest games of all: trying to establish North Korea and its leader as a serious global player in geopolitics.

Through these interactions over several years in Switzerland, anecdotes reveal that otherwise hidden elements of his personality became uncovered. Though he tended to be shy, a collection of interviews with known classmates showed him to also be “dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and with delusions of grandeur," according to former U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. His more brash side was also visible when playing sports as he could become very competitive and had a reputation for trash talking. 

Kim’s life wasn’t all sports and movie watching, however. After two years at school (ca. 1994/95), his mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. While she immediately began receiving treatment in France, her prognosis was grave and this affected the young boy. Despite the initial outlook, Ko Yong-hui managed to beat the odds (of a 5-year survival rate of 22%) and lived several more years, dying in 2004 after a recurrence of cancer.

Kim’s days in Switzerland were likely numbered after his aunt (the sister of his mother) and her husband viewed their position in the regime as weakened by Ko Yong-hui’s illness. His aunt, Ko Yong-suk, who had been Kim Jong-un’s guardian in Bern, gathered up her family and absconded to the U.S. Embassy in 1998. Her family now resides in New York City.

In the summer of 1998, after the defection, Kim was removed from the private school and sent to a public school so he wouldn’t have to explain why his guardians, who had been passed off as his “parents”, were no longer around according to Anna Fifield.

His inability to clearly communicate with his classmates at yet another school frustrated him and that fed into some of his worst behaviors. Though at least one former classmate holds more moderate memories of Kim’s actions, others recalled that he would become aggressive and even spat on and kicked them.

A lackluster student, Kim did manage to graduate from each grade until he was permanently brought back home in 2001.


– Regarding his youthful obsession, I would like to note that his incongruous enjoyment of basketball, a game created by the “Yankee imperialists” who invaded his country, and his desire to become a professional player, is somewhat par for the course for the Kim family, whose members seem to harbor dreams other than dictatorship and self-images that are outside of reality.

Kim Il-sung envisioned himself a great military leader and intellectual. The fact is, he never led more than a few hundred fighters during the struggle against Japanese occupation. During the Korean War, he had practically lost the whole country until China took the leading role in pushing back NATO forces. And, he only received around eight years’ worth of formal education (much of it in Chinese) and needed help regaining mastery of the Korean language once he returned to the country after Japan’s surrender after not permanently living in Korea since the 1920s.

And his father, Kim Jong-il, initially wanted to become a film director, not a dictator. His penchant for films led him to create a massive secret hoard of foreign movies. In 1978 it also lead to a bizarre episode of kidnapping that one would assume was the plot of a low-budget dramedy if it weren’t real.

No matter their secret dreams, each generation of Kim has managed to take up the mantel of power with ruthless efficiency. –


In the meantime, Kim’s older siblings were being prepared for their own destinies. In cases of hereditary succession around the world, it’s usually the firstborn son who gets tapped to become the next leader. This is no different in North Korea, unless something gets in the way.

Kim Jong-nam was Kim Jong-il’s firstborn. He was born in 1971 to Song Hye-rim, another one of Kim Jong-il’s mistresses. His earliest years were spent living with his aunt, Seong Hye-rang, as Kim Jong-il didn’t want the non-divine and non-traditional circumstances of his private life incidentally revealed to the public (or to Kim Il-sung in particular). Kim Jong-nam was allowed to visit his grandmother in Moscow but was otherwise kept within the walls of various villas around North Korea.

It was around the time of Song Hye-rim’s own son’s defection in 1982 that Kim Jong-nam was sent to schools in Switzerland and Russia. He remained there until 1988 when he was recalled home. Much of the time from 1988 to 1998 is unknown, but it is suspected that he made several foreign trips as early as 1995; a habit that would come to haunt the rest of his life.

In 1998 he was given an appointment within the Ministry of Public Security (now called the Ministry of Social Security). He was later given roles in the country’s developing Information Technology sector, through which he was introduced to various foreign contacts.

It is suspected that Kim Jong-nam became the heir apparent in the 1998-2001 timeframe, but his aunt refutes this and claims that Kim Jong-un was actually tapped to become the successor in 1998 when he was around 15. Regardless, what happened next would make it impossible for Kim Jong-nam to become the third Kim ruler.

In 2001, using a fake Dominican Republic passport and under the alias of Pang Xiong (which means “fat bear” in Chinese), Kim Jong-nam and his family attempted to enter Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland. From there, he was arrested and sent back to China, where Kim Jong-il demanded his return home.

The embarrassment caused by the Disneyland incident was the public excuse for why Kim Jong-nam began to fall out of favor, but he claims that during his life in North Korea, he advocated for various reforms and that’s the real reason why he was passed over. From that point on, he would spend much of his life overseas, particularly in Macau and Hong Kong, rarely going back to Pyongyang.


Kim Jong-un’s second older brother is Kim Jong-chul, who was born on September 25, 1981. He and Kim Jong-un share the same mother. In contrast to Kim Jong-nam’s often public life, the life of Kim Jong-chul is virtually unknown.

It is known that he spent his life in Pyongyang until 1993 when he was sent to schools in Switzerland, as was tradition. He was brought back home in 1998 and according to North Korean Leadership Watch, attended Kim Il Sung Military University.

Like his elder brother, Kim Jong-chul also enjoyed going overseas and was even photographed at an Eric Clapton concert in 2006 and again in 2011. These activities and others may provide a window into his psyche and help us understand why he was eventually removed from the running to succeed Kim Jong-il, despite his evidently worthy work within various government and Party apparatuses. As Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto remarked regarding Kim Jong-chul, he was considered "no good because he is like a little girl".

Whether or not Kim Jong-chul played into traditional stereotypes of “manliness”, it seems he simply lacked the viciousness required to lead North Korea. A quiet man who enjoys popular Western music doesn’t inspire in others the vision of a future dictator. Kim Jong-chul remains in Pyongyang and still serves in government.

Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il on a joint guidance visit to a factory in November 2011. Image source KCNA.

The Heir

With his older brothers knocked out of contention, it fell to Kim Jong-un to become the heir apparent. Fujimoto had words to say about this as well, saying, “if power is to be handed over then Jong-un is the best for it.” He went on to say that Kim Jong-il had preferred the younger Kim for years, something that supports his aunt’s claim that Kim Jong-un had actually been decided upon as a teenager.

Kim’s explicit existence was unknown to the people of North Korea until 2009. Prior to that, he may have been referred to through metaphor, but his name and relationship to the country’s Dear General were not yet known, even among most westerners.

In contrast to Kim Jong-il’s life prior to the death of Kim Il-sung, where he toured the country extensively with his father, it seems that Kim Jong-il was content leaving Kim Jong-un in the background until needed. The necessity to bring him forward and begin rigorous grooming happened much sooner than expected.

In August 2008 Kim Jong-il suffered a serious stroke. His situation was so severe that North Korean doctors were no longer viewed as capable of taking care of his needs and a French doctor, Dr. Francois-Xavier Roux, was flown to the country to attend to him. Other reports claim that Chinese doctors were also summoned to his side.

He was out of the public eye for around three months and when he finally reappeared, he looked much diminished. Already a short man and someone who didn’t like speaking in public, Kim Jong-il reemerged frail and continued his tradition of not speaking on national television or radio, leaving the public with many questions.

What Kim Jong-un and other members of the family were doing at this time one can only speculate on, but this brush with death forced Kim Jong-un into an intense period of preparation.

Even if Kim had been chosen to be the next leader as young as 15, there is little indication that he received any substantial training for the job until after 2008. And if the decision indeed wasn’t made until Kim Jong-il had his stroke, then the younger Kim was the subject of what could only be described a crash course in the dynastic leadership of an authoritarian, isolated, nuclear-armed state.

While his father had 20 years or so to gradually take on greater and greater responsibilities (to the point that, in most things, he was already the de facto leader of the county before Kim Il-sung’s death), it seemed obvious that Kim Jong-un had an uncertain number of years to prepare, to develop a power base of his own, and to learn how to manage a highly corrupt bureaucracy that was fragmented among competing power centers such as the Party, the military, and even among individuals like his uncle Jang Song-taek who had managed to carve out a level of control for themselves.

Kim Jong-un attended Kim Il-sung Military University from 2002 to 2006, as have many other members of the family. While military conscription is mandatory for all North Korean males and can apply to many women as well, Kim has no basic military training. According to official sources, he graduated at the top of his class (in contrast to his performance in Switzerland), but this is viewed as an attempt to burnish his image as a worthy successor capable of guiding the country.

North Korea is still deeply influenced by Confucian philosophy, where age is strongly intertwined with the concept of wisdom. Kim’s young age could have posed an obstacle among others in the family and military leadership who were older and more experienced. If Kim did attend the university and maintained a full course load, it may have prepared him in theory, but he still lacked hard experience.

As Kim Jong-il placed the military at the forefront of North Korean society through his Songun policy, Kim Jong-un needed to do more than read up on the exploits of his grandfather during the 1930s and Korean War.

Kim Jong-il began taking him to various military installations around the country as part of “on the spot guidance” (a tool developed by Kim Il-sung to publicly demonstrate his leadership ability and his “unmatched brilliance”), giving the younger Kim a greater understanding of the capabilities and deficiencies of the military he would soon inherit.

He was also seen accompanying his father on tours to factories, cultural sites, and farms in an attempt to get him seen by the public (who had largely been ignorant of his existence) and to try to improve his knowledge of the way the country functions and how to behave as a Supreme Leader.

Based on a review of Korean Central News Agency reports, some examples of these tours include a joint visit to Korean People’s Army (KPA) Unit 851 to oversee a military drill on Oct. 4, 2010, a visit to the construction site of the Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station on Nov. 2, 2010, attending the New Year concert of the Unhasu Orchestra on Dec. 31, 2010, a joint visit to the Amnokgang Gauge and Instrument General Factory on Jan. 13, 2011, viewed the performance of the Chagang Provincial Art Troupe on April 5, 2011, a joint meeting with the delegation of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation on May 17, 2011, and a joint inspection of KPA Unit 963 on July 12, 2011.

These and many other events played an important role in getting people used to Kim Jong-un as the future leader and served as an introductory education for him on a wide range of military, economic, agricultural, and cultural fields.

Leading up to the time of his father’s death, Kim Jong-un was given several official positions within the government and military. He is believed to have served within the army’s General Political Bureau, he was given a position on the National Defense Commission in 2009, and on Sept. 27, 2010 he was given the rank of Daejang (the equivalent of a four-star general in the U.S.) as well as given the honorific “Brilliant Comrade” which placed him above everyone but his father in the parlance of North Korean politics.

In 2011, South Korean reporting claimed that the regime had also begun to purge around 200 political and military officials who were seen to be too close to his uncle Jang Sung-taek and to others who might pose a challenge to Kim’s future rule. Some were allegedly executed, some were demoted, while at least one individual is said to have committed suicide after being interrogated. 

Kim Jong-il’s last week alive was a rather busy one. He toured multiple military and industrial sites giving on the spot guidance and preparing for various economic campaigns to begin in 2012 which would be the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. But he was not to see the New Year. Kim Jong-il’s last public appearance was on December 15 when he and Kim Jong-un visited the Kwangbok Supermarket which had recently been renovated.

Long-term survival rates for those having suffered a major stroke are poor, with 70-80% dying within five years. Three years after Kim Jong-il’s stroke, he died on Dec. 17, 2011.

On that winter’s night, the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un would be faced with the realities of holding together a country with a chronically ill economy while also engaging in untold palace intrigue to ensure his ability to rule all without having the benefit of decades of preparation. 

~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series.

Supporters at lower levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will receive a mention as seen below.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/24/2021