Kim Jong-un Korean pronunciation: [kimdʑʌŋɯn] (born 8 January 1983 or 1984)—also romanised as Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong Un or Kim Jung-eun—is the supreme leader of North Korea, the son of Kim Jong-il (1941–2011) and the grandson of Kim Il-sung (1912–1994). He has held the titles of the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, and also a presidium member of the Central Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea. He was officially declared the supreme leader following the state funeral for his father on 28 December 2011. He is the third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il and his consort Ko Young-hee. From late 2010, Kim Jong-un was viewed as heir apparent to the leadership of the nation, and following his father’s death, he was announced as the “Great Successor” by North Korean state television. At Kim Jong-il’s memorial service, North Korean Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam declared that “Respected Comrade Kim Jong-un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong-il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage”. On 30 December 2011 the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea formally appointed Kim as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. On 11 April 2012, the 4th Party Conference elected him to the newly created post of First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
He was promoted to the rank of marshal of the DPRK in the Korean People’s Army on 18 July 2012, consolidating his position as the supreme commander of the armed forces. He obtained two degrees, one in physics at Kim Il-sung University and another at the Kim Il-sung Military University. At 29–30 years of age, he is the world’s youngest head of state.
No official comprehensive biography on Kim Jong-un has yet been released. Therefore, the only known information on his early life comes from defectors and people who have claimed to witness him in countries like Switzerland. Some of the information has been conflicting and contradictory since his brother Kim Jong-chul was attending school there around the same period. Nevertheless, there has been some consensus on information about his early life. North Korean authorities have stated that his birthdate is 8 January 1982, but outside speculation by analysts and observers believe his birthdate to be around 1983 or early 1984.
According to reports first published in Japanese newspapers, he went to school in Switzerland near Bern. First reports claimed he attended the private English-language “International School” in Gümligen near Bern under the name “Chol-pak” or “Pak-chol” from 1993 until 1998. He was described as shy, a good student who got along well with his classmates and was a basketball fan. He was chaperoned by an older student who was thought to be his bodyguard.
Later it was reported that Kim Jong-un attended the public school “Liebefeld Steinhölzli” in Köniz near Bern under the name “Pak-un” or “Un-pak” from 1998 until 2000 as the son of an employee of the Embassy of North Korea. Authorities of Köniz confirmed that a student from North Korea, registered as the son of a member of the Embassy attended the school from August 1998 till fall 2000, but were unable to give details about his identity. Pak-un first attended a special class for foreign-language children and later attended the regular classes of the 6th, 7th, 8th and part of the final 9th year, leaving the school abruptly in fall 2000. He was described as a well-integrated and ambitious student who liked to play basketball. However, his grades and attendance rating are reported to have been poor. The ambassador of North Korea in Switzerland, Ri Tcheul, had a close relationship with him and acted as a mentor. One of Pak-un’s classmates told reporters that he had told him that he was the son of the leader of North Korea. According to some reports, Jong-un was described by classmates as a shy child who was awkward with girls, indifferent to political issues but distinguished himself in sports, and had a fascination with the American National Basketball Association and Michael Jordan. One friend claimed that he had been shown pictures of Pak-un with Kobe Bryant and Toni Kukoč taken at an unknown location.
In April 2012, new documents came to light indicating that Kim Jong-un had lived in Switzerland since 1991 or 1992, earlier than previously thought.
The Laboratory of Anatomic Anthropology at the University of Lyon, France, after comparing the picture of the boy Pak-un, taken at the school “Liebefeld Steinhölzli” in 1999 with a picture of Kim Jong-un from 2012 came to the conclusion that the two faces show a conformity of 95 percent. The head of the institute, Raoul Perrot, a forensic anthropologist, considers it most likely that the two pictures show the same person.
It is believed that the student at the Gümligen “International School” was not Kim Jong-un but his elder brother Kim Jong-chol. It is not known whether the student known as Pak-un in “Liebefeld Steinhölzli” lived in Switzerland prior to 1998. All the children of Kim Jong-il are said to have lived in Switzerland, as well as the mother of the two youngest sons, who lived in Geneva for some time. The Kim clan is also said to organise family meetings in Switzerland at Lake Geneva and Interlaken.
Most analysts agree that Kim Jong-un attended Kim Il-sung University, a leading officer-training school in Pyongyang from 2002 to 2007.
For many years, only one confirmed photograph of him was known outside North Korea, apparently taken in the mid-1990s, when he was eleven. Occasional other supposed images of him surfaced but were often disputed. It was only in June 2010, shortly before he was given official posts and publicly introduced to the North Korean people, that more pictures were released of Kim, taken when he was attending school in Switzerland. The first official image of him as an adult was a group photograph released on 30 September 2010, at the end of the party conference that effectively anointed him, in which he is seated in the front row, two places from his father. This was followed by newsreel footage of him attending the conference.
Pre-2010 Party Conference speculation
His eldest half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, had been the favourite to succeed, but reportedly fell out of favour after 2001, when he was caught attempting to enter Japan on a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
Kim Jong-il’s former personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto, revealed details regarding Kim Jong-un, with whom he shared a good relationship, stating that he was favoured to be his father’s successor. Fujimoto also claimed that Jong-un was favored by his father over his elder brother, Kim Jong-chul, reasoning that Jong-chul is too feminine in character, while Jong-un is “exactly like his father”. Furthermore Fujimoto stated that “If power is to be handed over then Jong-un is the best for it. He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” Also according to Fujimoto, Jong-un smokes Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes and loves Johnnie Walker whiskey and has a Mercedes-Benz 600 Sedan.
When Jong-un was 18, Fujimoto described an episode where Jong-un questioned his lavish lifestyle and asked, “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding Jet Skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?” On 15 January 2009 the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, reported that Kim Jong-il appointed Kim Jong-un to be his successor.
On 8 March 2009, the BBC reported rumors that Kim Jong-un appeared on the ballot for elections to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the rubber stamp parliament of North Korea. Subsequent reports indicate that his name did not appear on the list of lawmakers, however he was later elevated to a mid-level position in the National Defense Commission, which is a branch of the North Korean military. Reports have also suggested that he is a diabetic and suffers from hypertension.
From 2009, it was understood by foreign diplomatic services that Kim was to succeed his father Kim Jong-il as the head of the Korean Workers’ Party and de facto leader of North Korea. He has been named “Yŏngmyŏng-han Tongji” (영명한 동지), which loosely translates to “Brilliant Comrade”. His father had also asked embassy staff abroad to pledge loyalty to his son. There have also been reports that citizens in North Korea have been encouraged to sing a newly composed “song of praise” to Kim Jong-un, in a similar fashion to that of praise songs relating to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Later in June, Kim was reported to have visited China secretly to “present himself” to the Chinese leadership, who later warned against North Korea conducting another nuclear test. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has strongly denied that this visit occurred.
North Korea was later reported to have backed the succession plan, after Kim Jong-il suspended a propaganda campaign to promote his youngest son. His birthday has since become a national holiday, celebrated on 8 January, according to a report by a South Korean website. He was expected to be named on 28 September 2010 as successor to his father as leader of North Korea.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited China in early September 2010, and discussed the issue of North Korean leadership succession with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. According to Carter, Kim Jong-il had said to Wen that Kim Jong-un’s prospective promotion to paramount leader of North Korea was “a false rumor from the West”.
Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission
Kim Jong-un was made a daejang, the equivalent of general in the United States, on 27 September 2010, a day ahead of a rare Workers’ Party of Korea conference in Pyongyang, the first time North Korean media had mentioned him by name and despite his having no previous military experience. Despite the promotion, no further details, including verifiable portraits of Kim, were released. On 28 September 2010 he was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and appointed to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, in an apparent nod to become the successor to Kim Jong-il.
On 10 October 2010, alongside his father, Kim Jong-un attended the ruling Workers’ Party’s 65th anniversary celebration. This was seen as fully confirming his position as the next leader of the Workers’ Party. Unprecedented international press access was granted to the event, further indicating the importance of Kim Jong-un’s presence. In January 2011, the regime began purging around 200 protégés of both Jong-un’s uncle-in-law Jang Sung-taek and O Kuk-ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea, by either detention or execution to further prevent either man from rivaling Jong-un. In the following months, Kim Jong-un was given more and more prominence as he accompanied Kim Jong-il during several “guidance tours” and received gifts from foreign delegations and personages, an honour traditionally awarded only to the living supreme leader. He was also listed second only to Kim Jong-il himself in the funeral committee for Jo Myong-rok.
Ruler of North Korea
On 17 December 2011, Kim Jong-il died. Despite the elder Kim’s plans, it was not immediately clear after his death whether Jong-un would in fact take full power, and what his exact role in a new government would be. Some analysts had predicted that when Kim Jong-il died, Jang Sung-taek would act as regent, as Jong-un was too inexperienced to immediately lead the country. On 25 December 2011, North Korean television showed Jang Sung-taek in the uniform of a general in a sign of his growing sway after the death of Kim Jong-il. A Seoul official familiar with North Korea affairs said it was the first time Jang has been shown on state television in a military uniform. His appearance suggests that Jang has secured a key role in the North’s powerful military, which has pledged its allegiance to Kim Jong-un.
The cult of personality around Kim Jong-un has been stepped up following his father’s death. He was hailed as the “great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche“, “outstanding leader of the party, army and people”, “respected comrade who is identical to Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il”, and chairman of the Kim Jong-il funeral committee. The Korean Central News Agency described Kim Jong-un as “a great person born of heaven”, a propaganda term only his father and grandfather had enjoyed, while the ruling Workers’ Party said in an editorial: “We vow with bleeding tears to call Kim Jong-un our supreme commander, our leader.”
He was publicly declared Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army on 24 December 2011 and formally appointed to the position on 30 December when the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party “courteously proclaimed that the dear respected Kim Jong Un, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK, assumed the supreme commandership of the Korean People’s Army”.
On 26 December 2011, the leading North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced that Kim Jong-un has been acting as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and supreme leader of the country, following his father’s demise.
On 9 January 2012, a large rally was held by armed forces in front of Kumsusan Memorial Palace to honor Kim Jong-un and demonstrate loyalty.
On 27 March 2012, Kim was elected to the Fourth Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea, that elected him first secretary, a newly made position, on 11 April. This position replaced the post of general secretary, which was awarded “eternally” to Kim Jong-il. At the conference, Kim Jong-un also took his father’s seats as Politburo Presidium member and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. In a speech made prior to the Conference, Kim Jong-un declared that “Imbuing the whole society with Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism is the highest programme of our Party”.
On 13 April 2012, the 5th Session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly appointed him First Chairman of the National Defence Commission.
On 15 April 2012, during a military parade to commemorate Kim Il-sung’s centenary, he made his first public speech. That speech became the basis of “Onwards Toward the Final Victory“, a repetitively aired propaganda hymn dedicated to him.
In July 2012, Kim Jong-un was promoted to wonsu, the highest active rank in the military. The decision was jointly issued on by the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defence Commission and the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Korean Central News Agency subsequently announced. By this promotion he is one of only two wonsu holders now alive in North Korea. The other is Lee Ul Sol, who received the rank in 1995. The only higher rank is dae wonsu (roughly translated as Grand Marshal or Generalissimo) which was held by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and which was awarded posthumously to his father, Kim Jong-il, in February 2012. The promotion confirmed Kim’s role as top leader of the North Korean military and came days after the replacement of Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-ho by Hyon Yong-chol.
During a 26 July 2012 performance marking the 59th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War, security around Kim has reportedly increased dramatically because Kim “is extremely nervous about the possibility of an emergency developing inside North Korea” caused by “mounting opposition to his efforts to rein in the military.”
In August 2012, Kim Jong-un announced economics reforms similar to the People’s Republic of China. Kim began to be mentioned by the North Korean state media as “Supreme Leader” (chego ryongdoja) at this time.
In November 2012, satellite photos revealed a half kilometer long propaganda message carved into a hillside in Ryanggang Province, reading, “Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun!”. The message, located next to an artificial lake built in 2007 to serve a hydroelectric station, is made of Korean letters measuring 15 by 20 meters, and is located approximately 9 kilometers south of Hyesan near the border with the People’s Republic of China.
Kim Jong-il’s personal chef Kenji Fujimoto stated “Stores in Pyongyang were brimming with products and people in the streets looked cheerful, North Korea has changed a lot since Kim Jong-un assumed power. All of this is because of leader Kim Jong-un.”
Officially, Kim Jong-un is part of a triumvirate heading the executive branch of the North Korean government along with Premier Pak Pong-ju and parliament chairman Kim Yong-nam (no relation). Each nominally holds powers equivalent to a third of a president’s powers in most other presidential systems. Kim Jong-un commands the armed forces, Pak Pong-ju heads the government and Kim Yong-nam handles foreign relations. Nevertheless, it is generally understood that Kim Jong-un, like his father before him, exercises absolute control over the government and the country.
Ri Yong-ho, Kim Yong-chun, U Dong-chuk, and Kim Jong-gak were handpicked to groom the young leader and were close confidants of Kim Jong-il. They have either been demoted or disappeared. One South Korean government official said Kim Jong-un is trying to “erase all traces of his father’s rule” 11 months after stepping into power and “replacing top brass with officers who are loyal to him alone.”
On 30 November 2012, Kim met with Li Jianguo, who “briefed Kim on the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China,” according to the KCNA news agency. A letter from Xi Jinping was hand-delivered during the discussion.
In 2013 Kim re-established his grandfather’s style when he made his first New Year’s address, which was a break from the approach of his father, Kim Jong-il who never made televised addresses during his 17 years in power. In lieu of delivering a speech, Kim Jong-il contributed to and approved a New Year’s Day editorial, jointly published by Rodong Sinmun (the daily newspaper of the Korean Workers’ Party), Joson Imnigun (the newspaper of the Korean People’s Army), and Chongnyon Jonwi (the newspaper of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League). At the extraordinary meeting with his top defence and security officials on 26 January 2013 Kim issued orders on preparations for a new nuclear test and introduced martial law in North Korea effective from 29 January.
On 7 March 2013, North Korea threatened the United States with a ‘pre-emptive nuclear attack’, and Kim Jong-Un issued a detailed threat to “wipe out” Baengnyeong Island, the scene of previous naval clashes.
At a plenary meeting of the WPK Central Committee held on 31 March 2013 in the wake of war threats with South Korea, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea will adopt “a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously”
Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who used to work as Kim Jong-il’s personal cook, described Kim Jong-un as “a chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality”.
The Washington Post reported in 2009 that Kim Jong-un’s school friends recalled he “spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.” He was obsessed with basketball and computer games, and was once caught with a bondage pornographic magazine in his school bag. On 26 February 2013, Kim Jong-un met ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman, leading many reporters to speculate that Rodman was the first American that Kim had met. He is a fan of Eric Clapton.
In a 2012 news story, Business Insider reported, “Signs of a rise in luxury goods have been creeping out of North Korea since Kim Jong-un took over as last year. Just recently, Kim’s wife Ri Sol-Ju was photographed holding what appeared to be an expensive Dior handbag, worth almost $1,594 – an average year’s salary in North Korea.” According to diplomatic sources, “Kim Jong-un likes to drink and party all night like his father and ordered the [imported sauna] equipment to help him beat hangovers and fatigue.”
In 2013, it was rumored that Kim Jong-un received plastic surgery in order to modify his facial appearance.
On 14 March 2013, reports surfaced from South Korean intelligence sources that Kim Jong-un had been the target of an assassination attempt. The attempt was made by “disgruntled people inside the North” in response to the demotion of Reconnaissance General Bureau director Kim Yong-chol in November 2012. According to the unnamed intelligence source the attempt was made in downtown Pyongyang and resulted in a firefight. The demotion was due to an internal power struggle between government factions.
There had also been a rumor about an assassination attempt in 2012 while Kim Jong-un was visiting China. United States officials claimed the rumors had no validity.