Kim Jung-un: The Rise of a North Korea’s Secretive Dictator

Kim Jong-un is thought to have been born on 8 January 1982 but some accounts have said he was actually born the following year, with his birth year having been changed to bring it in line with the 40th birthday of his father Kim Jong-il. He is thought to be the second of three children, with an older brother, Kim Jong-chul, who was born in 1981, and sister Kim Yo-Jong who was born in 1987.
 
Called "Pak Un" and described as the son of an employee of the North Korean embassy, Kim and his siblings attended an English-language international school in Switzerland, near Bern.  They are said to have a close relationship as a result of their years studying in isolation together from 1996 to 2000. Some former classmates described him as a quiet student who spent most of his time at home, but had a sense of humour. "He was funny," former classmate Marco Imhof told The Mirror in 2011. "Always good for a laugh." "He had a sense of humour; got on well with everyone, even those pupils who came from countries that were enemies of North Korea," another former classmate told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. "Politics was a taboo subject at school ... we would argue about football, not politics." He later returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where he attended the Kim Il-Sung Military University.
 
In 2009, Kim was appointed to the state’s National Defense Commission. The next year, he was promoted to the rank of four-star general and was named vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and of the Central Military Commission. 
 
Kim Jong-il, North Korea's "Dear Leader", was in the process of grooming Kim as his successor when he died in December 2011. North Korea's cult of personality around Kim Jong-un was stepped when he took over from his father. He was hailed as the "great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche", "outstanding leader of the party, army and people" and "respected comrade who is identical to Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il", and was made 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."
 
In 2012, state media reported that Kim was married to Ri Sol-Ju, with the marriage having been arranged by Kim Jong Il back in 2009. It’s thought the couple have three children, although this remains unconfirmed. In the same year, Kim assumed the title of marshal of the North Korean army, the highest military rank in the country. 
 
The early years of Kim’s reign were characterized by a ruthless consolidation of power and the sharp acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2016 report on North Korea’s military capability described the violent means Kim has used to gain and hold power since assuming control in 2011. Kim “has solidified his grip on power by embracing the coercive tools used by his father and grandfather. His regime has used force and the threat of force,” combined with suppression of dissenters, to “co-opt” the state military and elites, grow military defense capabilities and challenge the U.S. and its South Korean allies, the report said.
 
Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea has continued to develop nuclear weapons. By 2017 North Korea had conducted a total of six nuclear tests, including at least one of a device that North Korean officials claimed was small enough to mount on an intercontinental ballistic missile. With a significant part of the mainland United States now theoretically within range of a North Korean nuclear attack, a war of words erupted between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump with the US to threatening a ‘massive military response’ against North Korea should it try anything. However, Kim has also had two historic meetings with Trump in 2018 and 2019, with denuclearisation on the agenda. Although the first summit was hailed a success, the second ended without an agreement – with reports that North Korea recommenced work on its missile testing sites soon after.
 
While Washington and P’yŏngyang engaged in a steady exchange of insults and bombastic rhetoric, Kim was initiating an unlikely charm offensive at home. The election of Democratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-In as president of South Korea in May 2017 had opened the door for possible reengagement between North and South Korea. On April 27, 2018, Kim and Moon met for a historic summit at the “peace village” of P’anmunjŏm. It marked the first time that the leaders of the two Koreas had met face-to-face in more than a decade.
 
In April 2020, his conspicuous absence from celebrations marking his late grandfather's birth anniversary fuelled speculation in the media and among pundits about the strongman's health and whereabouts. A Hong Kong TV broadcaster reported that Kim had gone to a hospital for a cardiovascular surgery on 12 April, but according to CNN reporting from U.S. agencies monitoring intelligence from North Korea, by 21 April Kim's state was in "grave danger" from the surgery. South Korea's foreign policy advisor Moon Chung-in issued a statement on 26 April that "Kim Jong Un is alive and well.” The speculation surrounding his condition raised the intriguing question of who would take over, with the most likely heir being his sister Kim Yo-Jong.