Kim Jong-un is the leader of North Korea. He is not the president; his late grandfather holds that title for eternity. He is not the ‘Supreme Leader’ since his late father holds that title for eternity. Kim Jong-un is: Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; First chairman of the National Defense Commission; First secretary of the Workers’ Party; Chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission; Member of the Presidium of the party’s Political Bureau; Supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army; and, president for eternity of the North Korean Chapter of the Dennis Rodman Fan Club (I gave him that one).
When the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August 1945 Stalin expected a long, drawn-out affair and was greatly surprised when Soviet troops marched into Pyongyang with little or no resistance. He was caught without a Korean he could put in charge so he asked Lavrenty Beria to recommend some candidates. Beria suggested Kim Il-sung to Stalin.
Kim Il-sung returned to Korea after eight years in exile and was installed as head of the Provisional People’s Committee by Stalin. He was awarded this position because he had the backing of the Korean people due to his efforts in fighting the Japanese occupation. As the Cold War heated up and Korea was divided, Kim Il-sung began calling himself “Great Leader” and became the unquestioned leader in the north. Ultimately he was able to create a state based on a cult of personality with himself at the center and conducted purges to rid North Korea of all opposition.
Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and it took Kim Jong-il three years to consolidate power but he ultimately succeeded his father as “Supreme Leader” of North Korea. Kim Jong-il continued the elaborate personality cult he inherited and both he and his father are deified in North Korea.
Kim Jong-il had three sons, a brother-in-law and a favorite army general, all who were considered possible successors; however, nothing official was being heard from the North Korean government. There are some who believe that many North Koreans who were in a position of power did not want to see a continuation of the Kim dynasty. Then, on June 2, 2009, it was reported that his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, would be North Korea’s next leader. Why the youngest son was picked is unknown. Some say it was because he was his father’s favorite and that his older brother, Kim Jong-nam, had fallen out of favor, while others believe it may simply be because he physically looks like his grandfather and possibly has had cosmetic surgery to enhance that look.
While it sounds ridiculous that someone would be picked to lead a country based on their resemblance to another leader, the other reason given that his older brother fell out of favor, is just as ludicrous. It has been reported that Kim Jong-nam was in line for the throne when he was stopped in a Tokyo airport while traveling under a false passport. He was traveling as a Dominican named Pang Xiong (Fat Bear in Chinese) and the Japanese deported him to China. Kim Jong-nam and his family were attempting to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Extremely embarrassed Kim Jong-il cancelled his own trip to China and his son quickly fell out of favor.
Kim Jong-nam lives in China though officially he still calls North Korea home and is not officially considered a defector. He did not return for either his father’s funeral or his brother’s coronation. There have been recent indications that Kim Jong-nam is in hiding. Apparently, ever since his brother’s coronation he has had some unflattering things to say to the Chinese press. There are rumors that North Koreans have been sent to China to stage a car accident that will take care of the sibling rivalry issue. No one who is talking knows if this is true; however, Kim Jong-nam apparently is not waiting to find out. As for Kim Jong-il’s second son, according to a member of the household staff who has since defected, he was never considered for the leadership position as his father considered him a sissy and too feminine to lead North Korea.
This brings us to Kim Jong-un, the brother who is considered to have the best judgment.
Due to the secretive nature of North Korea very little is known about the early life of Kim Jong-un, including his birth. It is presumed he was born in North Korea and it is known his mother was Ko Young-hee, a former opera singer who was his father’s consort. When Ko Young-hee became the consort of Kim Jong-il he was married and had one other mistress. Reportedly she is the only person who could tell Kim Jong-il no. She had two other children and is reported to have campaigned for Kim Jong-un’s position of prominence prior to her death in 2004. The year of his birth is unknown but thought to be either 1983 or 1984.
The secrecy that is North Korea is blatantly obvious in the circumstances surrounding Ko Jung-hee. She was of Korean and Japanese descent and her father was a lowly factory worker. Kim Jong-il’s father apparently knew nothing of her during his life. She can never be acknowledged publicly if Kim Jong-un is to attain cult status due to her social standing. Simply put the mingling of her blood with that of the Kim dynasty would only serve to undermine the purity of their bloodline. In Korea she is referred to as “Great Mother” and her real name is a state secret.
Even in death the secrets are kept. She was treated in Paris for advanced cancer and then returned home to die in the summer of 2004. An extremely expensive coffin was shipped home with her. At the time of her death North Korea’s northern border with China was closed to foreign tourists and the number of telephones that could be used to call foreign residents and embassies was severely restricted. The Russian news agency, Tass, said these restrictions were to prevent possible leaks of information. Apparently there was jockeying for position among the sons to succeed Kim Jong-il once Ko Young-hee was gone and that maneuvering was to be done in private.
Kim Jong-un attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland where his official biography claims he was an excellent student who mastered English, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Russia. His school records indicate he narrowly passed English, German and math and at the age of 15 was transferred to a nearby state-run Swiss high school. Students who remember him say he was much more interested in soccer and basketball than books and that he idolized Michael Jordan. They say he was a pretty good basketball player for someone his size and that he hated to lose. He returned to North Korea in 2000 and attended a military academy.
While attending school in Switzerland he was registered under an assumed name and supposedly had a bodyguard registered at the same school posing as his older brother. While his official biography mentions the school neither the government nor the Kim family has ever flatly stated he was in school in Europe. The pictures compare him as a student with a more recent picture of him and include facial recognition marks.
Kim Jong-un was introduced at a massive military parade in 2010 as the heir apparent. At the time those people who watch North Korea noticed how heavy the once athletic Kim Jong-un had gotten. North Korea watchers believe that in an effort to buoy support for the young leader, they are trying to make him look as much like his revered grandfather as possible. There are some rumors that he has even undergone cosmetic surgery toward that end, though in January 2013 North Korea vehemently denied that. Some say the hope is that he will be seen as the reincarnation of his grandfather. In any case, there is a marked similarity between the two.
The reality is there is nothing in communist theory that makes mention of hereditary succession; yet, that is the basis of the Kim dynasty and Kim Jong-un’s sole claim to legitimacy. However, the concept is abundant in Korea’s past which was dominated by Confucian monarchies. Confucianism, however, is based on the concept of filial piety with the family being the model for the state. The monarch played the role of the wise father for the entire society. Veneration of age and wisdom is one of the basic principles of Confucianism.
There is no one in North Korea who does not realize that theirs is a failed economy unable to even feed itself. Their society is so sterile there is nothing for anyone at any level much less the pampered leadership. Dennis Rodman was a very good basketball player, he was one of the best rebounders to play the game, but I do not believe he is a high level international diplomat. Who is running North Korea?
Who’s in Charge?
There are those who believe that right now Kim is not running anything; he is simply the face of the dynasty and is propped up by regents, namely his aunt and her husband. It is important to remember that North Korea is not a constitutional state but rather a confederation of strong-men. How strong or conversely loosely this confederation is held together depends upon the strength of the ruler at the top. If his grip on the confederation becomes too loose someone will emerge to supplant him. For all intents and purposes this is 21st century feudalism.
These strong-men in North Korea right now are the generals and the party leaders; people who have a source of power and loyalty that is directed personally to them. Besides army units these sources of power would include vital sources of revenue such as guns, drugs, counterfeiting and mass organizations. The people who run these operations must either fear or be appeased by the Kim dynasty. That was the role filled by Kim’ father and grandfather; they used a mixture of bribes and purges to maintain a tight grip on the sub-leaders and right now it doesn’t appear Kin Jong-un is up to the task.
This where his aunt, Kim Kyong-hu, and her husband, Jang Song-taek, come into the picture as powers behind the throne. They both were high level governmental officials and Kim Kyong-hu as the daughter of the Eternal President and the sister of the Supreme Leader has a substantial power base in her own right. Their main role is to protect Kim’s flanks as they push him forward as a strong military leader. Apparently much of the reticence to his leadership is coming from the military an obstacle they are trying to overcome.
Currently in North Korea
What you are seeing in North Korea is the Kim family formula for getting attention and aid. As the 100th birthday of the Eternal President approaches North Korea is ramping up the saber rattling and oiling the extortion machine. They’ve done it before, which is very likely why you do not see a lot of concern being expressed by the people of South Korea.
They aren’t firing any nuclear missiles at anyone; they may not even test fire a missile. Right now they are well on their way to getting what they want. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the region talking with China and South Korea about North Korea. They are getting worldwide headlines. Kim is being seen as a leader on the world stage, exactly what they want if for no other reason than it helps him at home.
But the coup de grace is that the rogue nation is going to get millions and maybe billions in aid out of this. They will sell their compliance to the United States, South Korea, Japan and anyone else that is willing to throw a few dollars in for world peace.
So on April 15th a missile or two may or may not hit the ocean but what will definitely happen is something of value, other than fissionable material, will be transferred to the North Koreans.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.