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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
~ ~ ~ ~
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