The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known to most simply as North Korea, was established in 1948 and has since been ruled by three generations of the Kim family. Adopting the title ‘Supreme Leader’, the Kims oversaw the establishment of communism and a cult of personality surrounding their family.
Supported for many years by the USSR, North Korea and the Kims struggled when the Soviet regime collapsed and subsidies stopped. Relying on an obedient population completely disconnected from the outside world, the Kims have successfully upheld one of the most secretive regimes in the world for over half a century.
But who are the men who have subdued an entire populace and struck fear into the hearts of Western democracies with their policies and development of nuclear weapons? Here’s a run down of North Korea’s three Supreme Leaders.
Kim Il-sung (1920-94)
Born in 1912, Kim Il-sung’s family were borderline-impoverished Presbyterians who resented Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula: they fled to Manchuria around 1920.
In China, Kim Il-sung found a growing interest in Marxism and communism, joining the Chinese Communist Party and participating in an anti-Japanese guerrilla wing of the party. Captured by the Soviets, he ended up spending several years fighting as part of the Soviet Red Army. It was with Soviet help that he returned to Korea in 1945: they recognised his potential and had him installed as First Secretary of the North Korean Branch Bureau of the Korean Communist Party.
Kim quickly established himself as leader of North Korea, albeit whilst still reliant on help from the Soviets, promoting a cult of personality at the same time. He began implementing reforms in 1946, nationalising healthcare and heavy industry, as well as redistributing land.
In 1950, Kim Il-sung’s North Korea invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War. After 3 years of fighting, with extremely heavy casualties, the war ended in an armistice, although no formal peace treaty has ever been signed. With North Korea devastated following major bombing campaigns, Kim Il-sung began a massive reconstruction programme, significantly boosting the quality of life for those in North Korea.
As time went on, however, North Korea’s economy stagnated. Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality began to worry even those closest to him, as he rewrote his own history and imprisoned tens of thousands of people for arbitrary reasons. People were divided into a three-tier cast system which controlled all aspects of their lives. Thousands perished during famines and huge networks of abusive forced labour and punishment camps were set up.
A god-like figure in North Korea, Kim Il-sung went against tradition by ensuring that his son would succeed him. This was unusual in communist states. He died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1994: his body was preserved, and kept in a glass topped coffin in a public mausoleum so people could pay their respects.
Kim Jong-il (1941-2011)
Thought to have been born in a Soviet camp in 1941, the oldest son of Kim Il-sung and his first wife, Kim Jong-il’s biographical details are somewhat scarce, and in many cases, official versions of events seem to have been fabricated. He was reportedly educated in Pyongyang, but many believe his early education was actually in China. However, it is clear Kim Jong-il took a keen interest in politics throughout his childhood and teenage years.
By the 1980s, it became clear that Kim Jong-il was his father’s heir apparent: as a result, he began to assume important posts within the party secretariat and army. In 1991, he was named Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and he assumed the title ‘Dear Leader’ (his father was known as the ‘Great Leader’), beginning to construct his own cult of personality.
Kim Jong-il began to take over internal affairs within North Korea, centralising government and becoming increasingly autocratic, even within his father’s lifetime. He demanded absolute obedience and oversaw even the smallest details of government personally.
However, the fall of the Soviet Union caused an economic crisis in North Korea, and famine hit the country hard. Isolationist policies and an emphasis on self-reliance meant thousands suffered the effects of hunger and starvation over his rule. Kim Jong-il also began to strengthen the position of the military in the country, making them an essential part of the existence of civilian life.
It was also under Kim Jong-il’s leadership that North Korea produced nuclear weapons, despite a 1994 agreement with the United States in which they vowed to dismantle the development of their nuclear weapons programme. In 2002, Kim Jong-il admitted they had ignored this, declaring they were producing nuclear weapons for ‘security purposes’ due to new tensions with the United States. Successful nuclear tests were subsequently conducted.
Kim Jong-il continued to develop his cult of personality, and lined his youngest son, Kong Jong-un, up as his successor. He died of a suspected heart attack in December 2011.
Kim Jong-un (1982/3-present)
Kim Jong-un’s biographical details are difficult to ascertain: state-run media have put forth official versions of his childhood and education, but many consider these to be part of a carefully crafted narrative. However, it’s believed he was educated at a private school in Bern, Switzerland for at least some of his childhood, and reports say he had a passion for basketball. He subsequently studied at military universities in Pyongyang.
Although some doubted his succession and ability to lead, Kim Jong-un assumed power almost immediately following his father’s death. A new emphasis on consumer culture emerged in North Korea, with Kim Jong-un making televised addresses, embracing modern technology and meeting other world leaders in what appeared to be efforts to improve diplomatic relations.
However, he continued to oversee the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and by 2018 North Korea had tested over 90 missiles. Talks with the then US president, Donald Trump, proved to be relatively fruitful, with both North Korea and the United States affirming a commitment to peace, although the situation has since deteriorated.
Continued unexplained absences from the public eye have raised questions about Kim Jong-un’s health in the long term, but official state media have denied there are any medical issues. With only young children, questions still hang in the air over who Kim Jong-un’s successor might be, and exactly what his plans are for North Korea moving forward. One thing is for certain however: North Korea’s dictatorial first family look set to keep a firm grip on power.