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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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