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 other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also 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

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