History Podcasts

North Korea’s “Great Leader” dies

North Korea’s “Great Leader” dies

Kim Il-Sung, the communist dictator of North Korea since 1948, dies of a heart attack at the age of 82.

In the 1930s, Kim fought against the Japanese occupation of Korea and was singled out by Soviet authorities, who sent him to the USSR for military and political training. He became a communist and fought in the Soviet Red Army in World War II. In 1945, Korea was divided into Soviet and American spheres, and in 1948 Kim became the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Hoping to reunify Korea by force, Kim launched an invasion of South Korea in June 1950, thereby igniting the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate in 1953.

During the next four decades, Kim led his country into a deep isolation from even its former communist allies, and relations with South Korea remained tense. Repressive rule and a personality cult that celebrated him as the “Great Leader” kept him in power until his death in 1994. He was succeeded as president by his son, Kim Jong-Il, whose reign was equally repressive and isolating. Kim Jong-Il, known as "Dear Leader," served until his death in 2011. Kim Jong-Il's son Kim Jong-Un succeeded him, and serves to this day.


Biography of Kim Il-Sung, Founding President of North Korea

Kim Il-Sung (April 15, 1912–July 8, 1994) of North Korea established one of the world's most powerful cults of personality, known as the Kim Dynasty or Mount Paektu Bloodline. Although succession in communist regimes usually passes between members of the top political echelons, North Korea has become a hereditary dictatorship, with Kim's son and grandson taking power in turn.

Fast Facts: Kim Il-Sung

  • Known For: Prime Minister, Democratic People's Republic of Korea 1948–1972, President 1972–1994, and establishing the Kim Dynasty in Korea
  • Born: April 15, 1912 in Mangyongdae, Pyongyang, Korea
  • Parents: Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok
  • Died: July 8, 1994 at Hyangsan Residence, North Pyongan province, North Korea
  • Education: 20 years in Manchuria as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese
  • Spouse(s): Kim Jung Sook (m. 1942, died 1949) Kim Seong Ae (m. 1950, died 1994)
  • Children: Two sons, one daughter from Kim Jung Sook, including Kim Jong Il (1942–2011) and two sons and three daughters from Kim Seong Ae

North Korea’s brutality laid bare: Why Kim Jong-un’s sister could be at risk of execution

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While very little is known about everyday life in North Korea, one widely publicised aspect is the nation&rsquos intolerance for dissidence and attempts to undermine their regime. During Kim Jong-un&rsquos first five years as ruler, he was reported to have executed 340 people in a bid to consolidate his power, according to a South Korean think-tank. Of that figure, 120 were senior government officials. They included the dictator&rsquos uncle Jang Song-thaek who was later described as &ldquofactionalist filth&rdquo during Kim Jong-un&rsquos New Year&rsquos message in 2014. When the current leader vanished from the public eye in April and May, his sister Kim Yo-jong appeared to take the reins and made a number of statements on behalf of the country. But according to historical accounts, it appears that she will have to be careful in her approach and not upset her brother by posing any challenge to his rule.

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Kim Jong-un became the leader of North Korea after his father Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in December 2011.

Chris Mikul, who wrote &lsquoMy Favourite Dictators&rsquo last year, explained that he quickly asserted his power and quashed any suggestions that he would be a &ldquofigurehead&rdquo because of his age.

While Kim Jong-un&rsquos date of birth has never been confirmed by the regime, it is believed he would have been between 27 and 29 years old when he rose to power.

Mr Mikul told Express.co.uk : &ldquo There are a lot of signs that he is a more benevolent character than his father and grandfather and has concern for the welfare of people.

&ldquoThe use of Disney costumes would never have happened under Kim Jong-il, it&rsquos just another reason why he is different &ndash despite this he is still a brutal dictator.&rdquo

He claimed that while Kim Jong-un has been vastly different from his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of North Korea, he would never do anything to put his authority at risk.

Mr Mikul added: &ldquoIt&rsquos not enough to jeopardise their power but there are little moments where they can seem to be human rather than monsters.&rdquo

During Kim Jong-un's disappearances in April and May it was suspected Kim Yo-jong may take over (Image: GETTY)

Kim Jong-un was believed to be dead until he resurfaced in May (Image: GETTY)

During Kim Jong-un&rsquos alleged attempts to consolidate power he had a number of government officials executed &ndash including his uncle Jang Song-thaek.

He was Kim&rsquos uncle and held a highly important role, the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission &ndash which is considered the nation&rsquos second most important role.

The state claimed that Song-thaek had betrayed North Korea and was involved in a plot to undermine Kim Jong-un.

Details of the execution have never been confirmed or denied &ndash as is often the case with the regime &ndash but a number of shocking claims have since emerged.

The Hong Kong newspaper &lsquoWen Wei Po&rsquo alleged that Song-thaek along with other &lsquotraitors&rsquo had been stripped naked and eaten alive by 120 dogs that had been starved for three days.

Another report suggested that he had been brutally murdered with anti-aircraft machine guns.

Kim Yo-jong is considered to be the right-hand woman of Kim Jong-un (Image: GETTY)

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While the claims have not been verified it is known that the execution happened in front of other officials and it may have been a warning &ldquonot to revolt&rdquo to the public, according to one expert.

Aidan Foster-Carter, then a senior research fellow of Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, told The Independent in 2016 that the &ldquosevere punishments&rdquo act as a deterrent.

He said: &ldquoI put no cruelty past the North Korean regime, but it does sound extreme even for them.

&ldquoIn the recent past, they did have an effigy of the South Korean president mauled by dogs.&rdquo

While it is believed that Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un&rsquos sister, is in favour at the moment historical accounts suggest she will need to be careful not to overstep the mark.

North Korea: The Kim dynasty explained (Image: GETTY)

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Under the dictator&rsquos regime, those who stand against him appear to be at risk &ndash and killings are further justified to the public through censored state media reports.

When Jang Song-thaek was executed he was described as &ldquodespicable sub-human scum, worse than a dog&rdquo despite the exact details of his crimes never being fully publicised.

His photographs were removed from official media and his image was digitally removed from pictures with other North Korean leaders.

Despite the beliefs that Kim Yo-jong may have been gearing-up to take over in the event of Kim Jong-un&rsquos death &ndash North Korea expert Chris Mikul believes this move is unlikely.

He told Express.co.uk : &ldquoI can&rsquot think of any other woman who has had any role in politics in North Korea since it began, which gives us something to ponder about.

&ldquoI don't know anyone who has spoken on behalf of any of the Kims until it happened either, so it&rsquos unusual.&rdquo


History Tells Us How North Korea Would Handle the Death of Kim Jong-un

North Korea will use a fog of disinformation to maintain stability, just as Pyongyang did with Kim Jong-il.

Editor's Note: This is part of a symposium asking what happens if Kim Jong-un died. To read the other parts of the series click here.

The question of potential instability and a possible power struggle came up when Kim Jong-il, father of the current leader, suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma in 2008. Back then, North Korea kept his illness secret for weeks, and kept him out of the public eye for months.

The uncertainty back then sparked very real, very relevant questions about what might happen in this impoverished, nuclear-armed country where there was no clear chain of succession. And the stakes are even higher today, given the nuclear advancements Kim Jong-un has made as well as the even more fragile state of the North Korean economy under sanctions.

We should remember that North Korea was able to quietly tighten the cordon of security around his ailing father in 2008 and effectively restrict the flow of information in and out of the country as a way to avoid sparking panic at home as well to conceal his state of health to the outside world. That gave the regime time to put measures in place to ensure stability as well as to focus on a succession plan to groom Kim Jong-un and introduce him as the heir apparent. It wasn’t much time but it was enough to avert a crisis of instability when Kim Jong-ll died in 2011.

Some analysts have long predicted the collapse of the North Korean regime with a change of leadership. But I would say the system is stronger than we think, partly due to the fog of disinformation that the regime employs to keep its citizens in the dark. Uncertainty paralyzes them.

If Kim Jong-un were to fall ill or worse, we would see that same quiet tightening of security and the flow of information as we saw in 2008. Perhaps we are seeing that now. But we may not know immediately, and the inner circle would seek to conceal the true state of matters for as long as possible to buy time to maintain stability and put a succession plan in place.

Jean H. Lee is director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center, and a veteran foreign correspondent who ran the AP’s Seoul bureau and opened the news agency’s Pyongyang bureau. Follow her on Twitter @newsjean.


Meet the Kims

Domestically, Mr Kim's repeated replacement of defence ministers - there have been at least six men in the post since 2011 - has been seen by some analysts as an indication of his lack of confidence in the loyalty of the armed forces.

The most high-profile indication of a possible power struggle within the North Korean elite came in December 2013, when Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his uncle Chang Song-thaek. State media said he had been plotting a coup.

Mr Kim is also widely believed to have ordered the murder of his exiled half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in February 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Not much was known of Mr Kim's personal life until television footage of an unidentified woman attending events with him surfaced. In July 2012, state media announced that Mr Kim was married to "Comrade Ri Sol-ju".

Little is known of Ms Ri, but her stylish appearance led some analysts to suggest that she was from an upper-class family. Reports have suggested that Ms Ri may have been a singer who caught Mr Kim's attention during a performance.

According to South Korean intelligence, the couple have three children.

Mr Kim's sister, Kim Yo-jong, holds a senior post in the Workers' Party of Korea - and stole the limelight when she represented her brother at the Winter Olympics in the South. It is not known whether his elder brother, Kim Jong-chol, holds an official role.


North Korea’s Deadly Partnership With Iran

North Korea’s Kim Yong Nam was among the most mysterious, and most reported on, guests at the inauguration of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani over the weekend. Some media, eager to boost the profile of foreign visitors to the ceremony that marked the beginning of Rouhani’s second term, cited Kim Yong Nam as the hermit kingdom’s second most powerful man.

That is slightly inaccurate, since no one is quite sure how the complex webs of power inside the North Korean regime are navigated—other than the fact that Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader and the grandson of its founder, reigns supreme. Kim Yong Nam’s most relevant title is President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, which is a very long way of saying he is the speaker of the parliament.

On paper, he forms part of the executive triumvirate that includes Kim Jong Un, but his powers seem to be mostly ceremonial. Simply put, Yong Nam, who used to be the minister of foreign affairs from 1983 to 1998 under Kim Jong Un’s father, is the regime’s envoy to the world. It was he, for instance, who issued a message of congratulations to Emmanuel Macron after he was elected French president.

This isn’t Yong Nam’s first trip to Iran. He also visited in 2012 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement’s summit in Tehran. Then as now he was in the country for about 10 days, making many official visits and appearances, signing agreements for technical and educational cooperation between Iran and North Korea.

If he is forging deals to help Iran get the kind of nuclear and missile technology with which North Korea has surprised and frightened the world, but relations between the two governments go back a long way, and shared weaponry and technology has been key to their rapport.

[As The Daily Beast has reported, critics of the Iran nuclear deal with the West have gone so far as to raise the possibility that Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons and missiles inside North Korea.]

IranWire published background on the two pariah states in 2014 that helps put in perspective the curious relationship between the Islamic Republic and the world’s strangest hereditary non-monarchy.

Following are excerpts:

Iran and North Korea occupy overlapping territory in American perceptions, partly because President George W. Bush accused both countries, in his 2002 State of the Union speech, of pursuing weapons of mass destruction, mistreating their populations, and threatening world peace as members of an “axis of evil.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has written that some people “over-interpreted” Bush’s speech to mean the axis is an alliance among the states he named (the third being Iraq), but it’s true that Iran and North Korea (which identifies itself as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) have maintained an enduring relationship since 1979, based mainly on military trade and shared opposition to US interests.

A History of Shared Wounds

North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, first reached out to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, in May 1979, sending him a congratulatory telegram on the “victory of the Islamic Revolution,” according to Steven Ditto, adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. On June 25th of that year, Khomeini met with DPRK Ambassador Chabeong Ouk in Qom on what Chabeong called “the 29th anniversary of the aggression of U.S. troops against the meek nation of Korea.” And Khomeini replied in kind, calling called for the expulsion of American troops from South Korea..

Bound together by anti-Americanism and a narrow foreign policy driven by resentment, Iran and the DPRK found a natural common ground from the outset. “This fit into a larger trend of Iran establishing diplomatic and trade relations with ‘non-hostile’ countries,” Ditto said. “That is, Khomeini envisioned that relations could be made with any country, regardless of ideological orientation.”

But despite both countries’ lurid expressions of hatred for the United States, the relationship was ultimately propelled by revolutionary Iran’s military needs in the early years of the Iran-Iraq War.

“The Khomeini regime was a pariah, desperate for military equipment and ammunition. They reached out to everyone they could, and few were willing to help. One of those was North Korea,” said Joseph Bermudez Jr., an analyst of the Korean People’s Army. “On the North Korean side, it’s likely that they just saw Iran as a paying customer. Iran had oil. Iran had cash. North Korea had weapons but no cash and no oil, so it was an ideal match.”

For other nations that wanted to profit from arms sales to Iran without any political cost, North Korea served as middleman. North Korea enjoyed excellent relations with the Soviet Union, and was well placed to act as a conduit for Soviet-made arms to Iran at a time when the Kremlin was wary of offending Iraq, the historian Dilip Hiro noted in The Longest War, his history of the Iran-Iraq conflict. North Korea, he wrote, also served a similar function for China, which was wary of upsetting Egypt and other Arab allies by selling Iran arms. Speedy arrival of “urgently needed” weapons from North Korea boosted the morale of Iran’s post-revolutionary forces.

A Military Relationship Forged in War

In return for Iranian financial assistance, North Korea provided Iran with the SCUD B ballistic missiles it used against Iraq in the “War of the Cities,” according to former U.S. intelligence officer Bruce Bechtol’s book Red Rogue. Even after the Iran-Iraq War ended, Iran’s military ties with North Korea deepened. Bechtol wrote that since the 1990s, North Korea has helped Iran to develop its Shahab missiles, based on North Korean models, and that “it is believed ” North Korean representatives attended Iran’s test of its Shahab-4 missile in 2006.

North Korea has had military observers in Iran since the 1980s, says analyst Bermudez, who has lectured U.S. Army and Naval intelligence staff on North Korean defense. “These people have watched U.S. operations in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, and have drawn lessons. It is likely that equipment Iran acquired from Iraq through defections or capture has been shared with North Korea.” More recently, he says, there have been persistent rumors about North Korea hosting Iranian technicians, scientists, and military officials at ballistic missile tests, and vice versa. “It’s likely,” he says, “but we can’t prove it.”

What remains unclear is whether Iran has benefited from North Korea’s longer-range missile testing. “We’d like to know whether progress being made in one country’s program is benefiting another,” said Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. “One question that has never been adequately answered is how far does the missile cooperation go, and has it spilled over into the nuclear realm?”

Wolfsthal, who served in the White House for three years as special advisor on nuclear security to Vice President Joseph Biden, also pointed to U.S. concerns over whether the two countries share information about their nuclear programs, since North Korea has nuclear weapons. “We know that North Korea knows how to build a basic nuclear device, they’ve tested several. Is that information flowing? Iran has a very advanced centrifuge program based off the Pakistani network. We know North Korea has made some progress, but they’re not as technically skilled as some of the Iranian engineers, and so, have Iranians been helping the North Koreans perfect their uranium enrichment program?”

Diplomatic Exchanges, Friendship Farms

It is in the long history of diplomatic and cultural exchanges that the symbolic bond between Iran and North Korea can be charted. Iranian delegations traveled to the DPRK in the early 1980s and one visit included Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, who traveled as a representative of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, meeting Kim Il Sung and counterparts from North Korea’s Radio and Television Broadcasting Committee, said Ditto.

In 1989, Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visited North Korea as Iran’s president. Khamenei’s official biography quotes Ruhollah Khomeini’s son Ahmad’s claim that his father chose Khamenei as his successor based on the success of that trip.

In 1996 Iran and North Korea inaugurated “friendship farms” in each country. Every year, the farms hold cultural exchanges, commemorations of Khamenei’s visit to North Korea, and commemorations of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

By the 2000s, some Iranian officials, many reformists, and “pragmatic” conservatives concerned with Iran’s integration into the global economy expressed alarm, declaring North Korea to be a negative example. In 2006, Mohsen Rezaee, Secretary of the Expediency Council and former chief of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who himself led an official IRGC delegation to Pyongyang in 1993, cautioned that, should Iran follow “a reactionary stance internationally and a policy of developmental stagnation domestically,” it would fare no better than North Korea, Ditto says.

Curious details about cultural exchange emerge regularly, although rarely with much context, given the closed nature of the North Korean state.

In early 2013, the Iranian parliament approved as communications minister a former military official, Mohamed Hasan Nami, who holds a degree in “state management” from Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University, although there is no evidence that many Iranian officials study there.

Also in 2013, satellite images showed that Iran maintains a seven-building embassy compound in Pyongyang, at the center of which stands the first mosque in North Korea—one of only five places of religious worship in the country’s capital. In May 2009, North Korea held “Iranian Cultural Week” in Pyongyang. Details surrounding such events remain sparse.

Once Passionate, Ties Now Tepid

While both countries support each other rhetorically, by 2014 there was evidence of growing distance and diverging trajectories that may eventually cause Iran to see its friendship with North Korea as a liability.

Although there has been extensive cooperation between Iran and North Korea, and they are partners in the military realm, Alireza Nader of the Rand Corporation argued [in 2014] that they are not strictly allies. “It’s really a transactional relationship based on mutual opposition to U.S. interests, and Iran’s inability to find other military partners outside the Middle East—with the exception of, maybe, Belarus—and North Korea’s economic isolation.”

“There isn’t a common ideology there,” said Nader. “The two societies are completely different. Iran has a relatively sophisticated society, it has a sizeable middle class, it’s a merchant country [that is] susceptible to economic pressure. The government in Iran, while authoritarian, has to take public sentiment into consideration when making decisions. North Korea is a totalitarian state that lets its citizens starve.”

Diverging Trajectories

Nader suggested, however, that while North Korea is likely to maintain close links with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, it has little to offer the Rouhani government, which wants to improve Iran’s economy and international standing. “Rouhani,” Nader said, “is focused on improving relations with regional Arab states and European countries and potentially the United States, but also other Asian countries like China, Japan, India and South Korea. North Korea is at the bottom of that list.”

“Isolation makes strange bedfellows,” Jon Wolfsthal observes. “There’s no particular affinity between the cult of personality in North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, but they have some common interests in terms of accessing hard-to-access materials, currency, luxury items [and] military equipment. Iran produces a lot of oil, North Korea needs a lot. North Korea produces a lot of ballistic missiles, Iran likes them, so they’ve been able to work out what most people believe is a pretty sophisticated barter arrangement to keep this relationship going.”

Perhaps the largest outstanding question [in 2014] was whether the two counties could maintain a relationship as Iran pursued a nuclear pact with the West. Should Iran improve its relationship with the world, association with North Korea may become an embarrassment.

“If you’re looking at the ‘brands’ of North Korea and Iran, both are pretty low in the western world, but at least Iran has something that other countries want in terms of international engagement, economic capabilities, and location,” Wolfsthal says. “So you could say that [for] Iran, being associated with North Korea, which is recognized as just a police state, could be seen as hurting their ‘brand.’”

A relationship that once thrived on friendship farms and mutually admiring founding leaders looked, in the twenty-first century, like a relic of an era that one party, at least, may hope to leave behind.

Editor’s Note: The body of this story was written before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and before he threatened “fire and fury” to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. He may hope his rhetoric will shock and awe Iran as well. More likely, it will drive the two countries closer together once again.

Adapted from IranWire. The body of this article was originally written by Roland Elliott Brown in 2014. The introduction was written by Arash Azizi.


How North Korean leader Kim Jong Un became one of the world's scariest dictators

For the past 50 years, the world has grown used to crazy threats from North Korea that don't lead anywhere.

But the threats have taken a decidedly sharper and more ominous tone under Kim Jong Un, the third supreme leader of the hermit kingdom.

North Korea has carried out several nuclear tests under his rule.

And threats escalated this week after President Donald Trump said that North Korea would "be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before" if the Hermit Kingdom continued to threaten the US.

With all this attention, still relatively little is known of Kim. Here's what we do know of how he grew to be one of the world's scariest dictators.

Kim Jong Un was born on January 8 — 1982, 1983, or 1984.

His parents were future North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and his consort, Ko Young Hee. He had an older brother named Kim Jong Chul and would later have a younger sister named Kim Yo Jong.

While Kim Jong Un's official birth year is 1982, various reports suggest that the year was changed for symbolic reasons, including that it was 70 years after the birth of Kim Il Sung and 40 years after the birth of Kim Jong Il.

However, a recent move by the US Treasury Department to sanction Kim Jong Un listed his official date of birth as January 8, 1984.

Kim — here with his mother — lived at home as a child.

During this period, North Korea was ruled by "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. While Kim Jong Il was the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un's path to command was far less certain.

Then it was off to Switzerland to attend boarding school.

Called "Pak Un" and described as the son of an employee of the North Korean embassy, Kim Jong Un is thought to have attended an English-language international school in Gümligen near Bern.

Kim Jong Un is described by former classmates as a quiet student who spent most of his time at home, but he had a sense of humor, too.

"He was funny," former classmate Marco Imhof told The Mirror. "Always good for a laugh."

"He had a sense of humor 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."

Kim Jong Un loved basketball and idolized Michael Jordan.

The young Korean reportedly had posters of Jordan all over his walls during his Swiss school days. Although Kim Jong Un was overweight and only 5-6, he was a decent basketball player.

"He was a fiercely competitive player, very explosive," former classmate Nikola Kovacevic told The Mirror. "He was the play maker. He made things happen."

"He hated to lose. Winning was very important," said former classmate Marco Imhof.

He also had a "fantastic" collection of Nike sneakers.

After school in Switzerland, he returned home for military schooling.

Upon his return to North Korea, Kim Jong Un attended Kim Il Sung Military University with his older brother. Some reports say they started to attend their father's military field inspections around 2007.

While his father faced death, Kim Jong Un was rapidly promoted up the chain of political and military leadership, despite having little experience in either.

He was made a four-star general, deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party, and a member of the Central Committee, according to the BBC.

Kim Jong Un has a theme song known as "Footsteps."

"Footsteps" looks and sounds like a propaganda song from the Soviet Union.

The song calls people to follow in "Our Admiral Kim's footsteps." Here's a sampling of the lyrics:

Footsteps, footsteps . spreading out further the sound of a brilliant future ahead . tramp, tramp, tramp, ah, footsteps.

Many North Koreans see Kim Jong Un as a youthful version of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.

Kim bears a clear resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in appearance, haircut, and mannerisms.

Rumors had circulated that Kim Jong Un had received plastic surgery to enhance the resemblance even further, although the North finally responded and called the allegations "sordid hackwork by rubbish media."

"The false report . released by enemies is a hideous criminal act which the party, state, army and people can never tolerate," said the official Korean Central News Agency.

After his father died, Kim Jong Un was quickly declared "Supreme Leader" of North Korea.

When Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011, the young Kim Jong Un inherited the world's fourth-largest military, a nuclear arsenal, and absolute control over North Korea.

He took over ahead of his older brother Kim Jong Chol, whom their father thought was "effeminate" and weak. His other brother Kim Jong Nam apparently said negative things about the regime, according to The Australian.

Around 30 when he took power, Kim Jong Un is the youngest head of state in the world.

Some originally believed that Kim Jong Un's aunt and uncle were actually calling the shots.

Among Kim Jong Un's most trusted advisers were his aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband, Jang Sung Taek, both 66. The couple was reportedly ordered by Kim Jong Il to control the country's military and help the young leader consolidate his position while he gains more experience.

At a meeting of the DPRK Workers' Party, both were photographed sitting close by. Their most important job, it seems, is to push his role as a powerful figure among some generals who do not trust him, according to The Telegraph.

But at the end of December 2013, Kim Jong Un had his uncle and his uncle's family executed, apparently in a bid to stop a coup against his rule.

On December 12, 2013, Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Sung Taek executed. He was charged with having tried to take control of North Korea through a military coup. Following the uncle's execution, there were reports that Kim Jong Un continued to purge the rest of the uncle's family.

But North Korea's ambassador to the UK denied that Jang Sung Taek's family was also executed. Instead, the ambassador claimed that only Jang Sung Taek was killed by firing squad following a trial.

He's married to a former cheerleader and may have two kids.

Leaders in the Hermit Kingdom are often very secretive when it comes to their significant others, but Kim Jong Un often has his wife join him and allows photographs.

North Korean media revealed in July that he was married to Ri Sol Ju — a former cheerleader and singer — but no one knows exactly when they were married, according to NBC News.

South Korean intelligence believe the couple probably married in 2009 and already had one child. There are rumors Ri Sol Ju gave birth to a child in 2012, with many believing it was a girl.

The couple is believed to have had another child, in 2015.

Kim Jong Un lived out a childhood fantasy when former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman visited.

Everyone in the family is apparently a huge Chicago Bulls fan.

His father owned a video library of "practically every game Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls." Kim Jong Il tried unsuccessfully to get Jordan to visit in 2001.

Kim Jong Un had tons of Jordan posters as a kid. Brother Kim Jong Chol was photographed as a child wearing a Bulls Jersey: No. 91 — Rodman.

But recently, things haven't been going so well.

In 2013, Kim was reportedly the target of an assassination attempt. South Korean intelligence believes the young leader was targeted by "disgruntled people inside the North" after he demoted a four-star general, which resulted in a power struggle.

Perhaps as a means of reasserting control, Kim Jong Un has become extremely belligerent, shutting down all links with South Korea and threatening thermonuclear war against his neighbor and the US. His father and grandfather used to make these threats all the time without following through.

Kim Jong Un has continued to be belligerent with South Korea and the West throughout his rule in hopes of bolstering his authority.

North Korea has continued to test ballistic missiles and nuclear devices under Kim Jong Un's rule, despite the threat of sanctions. In 2012, the country launched its first satellite into space. And since Kim Jong Un has taken over, the country has continued to push ahead with its construction of ballistic and nuclear weapons.

In 2013, North Korea conducted its third-ever nuclear test and its first under Kim Jong Un. And in April 2015, a top US general warned that North Korea could develop nuclear missiles capable of reaching the shores of the western US.

The nuclear tests and international condemnations continued into 2016.

On January 5, 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth-ever nuclear test and its second under Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang claims the test was a miniaturized hydrogen bomb.

In response to the detonation, world leaders have strongly come out against North Korea. Even China, North Korea's main ally, has said that it strongly opposes the tests.

That test was followed up by a series of increasingly successful ballistic missile launches that have landed in the Sea of Japan. North Korea has also successfully test launched a ballistic missile from a submarine.

In September 2016, Kim Jong Un oversaw the fifth and most powerful nuclear test by North Korea to date. Based on some estimates, the blast from the warhead was more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The tests signal a commitment on the part of Kim to press forward with the armament of his nation. If undeterred, experts estimate North Korea could develop nuclear warheads that could reach the US by 2020.

The assassination of Kim's half-brother Kim Jong-Nam in a Malaysian airport led to a global investigation of North Korea's involvement.

On February 13 2017, Kim's half-brother Kim Jong Nam was fatally poisoned in a Kuala Lumpur airport.

Amid worldwide suspicion of North Korean involvement, Malaysian police conducted an autopsy against the wishes of the Kim's government and named a North Korean official and several other nationals as suspects alongside two foreign women believed to be working as hired assassins.

By March, the conflict between the former allies escalated after Malaysia directly accused the North Korean government of orchestrating the murder. North Korea issued an order that prevented Malaysian citizens from leaving the country while Malaysia responded by canceling visa-free entry to North Koreans.

In the Trump era, conflict with North Korea has reached a new high.

Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump reportedly labeled North Korea the single biggest threat to the US.

Breaking with former President Barack Obama's attempts at diplomatic negotiation via "strategic patience," the Trump administration started demanding for North Korea's immediate de-nuclearization and hinted at the possibility of a preemptive military strike if its impulsive leader does not comply.

In April, Kim retaliated by unsuccessfully test launching another nuclear missile at the same time that US Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to discuss the country's arms program in Seoul, South Korea. After the US threatened a "pretty significant international response" in the event of another test, a North Korean envoy warned that nuclear war could break out at "any moment."


Suppression of Opposition

After Kim assumed supreme leadership of North Korea, he reportedly executed or removed many senior officials that he had inherited from his father’s regime. Among those purged was his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek (also known as Chang Sŏng-t&aposaek), who is believed to have played an important role during Kim Kim Jong-il’s rule and had been considered one of Kim Jong-un’s top advisers. 

In December 2013, Jang was reportedly arrested and executed for being a traitor and plotting to overthrow the government. It is also believed that members of Jang&aposs family were executed as part of the purge.

In February 2017, Kim&aposs older half-brother Kim Jong-nam died in Malaysia. Although many details remained unclear, it was believed he was poisoned at Kuala Lumpur airport, and multiple suspects were arrested. Kim Jong-nam had been living in exile for many years, during which time he served as a vocal critic of his half-brother&aposs regime.


Take a Lesson From History: Millions Died the First Time We Fought North Korea

Key point: Neither side has ever been able to truly come to terms with the mass death caused by the conflict.

It’s difficult to try to keep up with developments in the latest round of saber rattling between the United States and North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump and Korean “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un have repeatedly traded verbal barbs via Twitter and more formal avenues amid news of naval redeployments, massive live-fire artillery exercises, United Nations condemnations and rumors of troop movements by regional powers.

The United States would have an obvious and distinct advantage over North Korea in a direct military engagement. That doesn’t mean that a war wouldn’t be a grueling and costly endeavor. North Korea’s military is dilapidated and antiquated, but it’s still one of the largest militaries in the world. When the two countries clashed before, from 1950 to 1953, the conflict ended in a virtual draw along the 38th parallel.

Of course, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers China sent to save its North Korean ally played a decisive role in that outcome, but the Korean People’s Army itself put up a formidable fight against the much more powerful United States and its allies. The KPA inflicted considerable casualties in a blitzkrieg-like assault through the south and quickly seized huge swaths of territory, compelling the United States to implement a scorched-earth policy that inflicted a tremendous death toll.

On a per-capita basis, the Korean War was one of the deadliest wars in modern history, especially for the civilian population of North Korea. The scale of the devastation shocked and disgusted the American military personnel who witnessed it, including some who had fought in the most horrific battles of World War II.

World War II was by far the bloodiest war in history. Estimates of the death toll range from 60 million to more than 85 million, with some suggesting that the number is actually even higher and that 50 million civilians may have perished in China alone. Even the lower estimates would account for roughly three percent of the world’s estimated population of 2.3 billion in 1940.

These are staggering numbers, and the death rate during the Korean War was comparable to what occurred in the hardest hit countries of World War II.

Several factors contributed to the high casualty ratios. The Korean Peninsula is densely populated. Rapidly shifting front lines often left civilians trapped in combat zones. Both sides committed numerous massacres and carried out mass executions of political prisoners. Modern aircraft carried out a vast bombing campaign, dropping massive loads of napalm along with standard bombs.

In fact, by the end of the war, the United States and its allies had dropped more bombs on the Korean Peninsula, the overwhelming majority of them on North Korea, than they had in the entire Pacific Theater of World War II.

“The physical destruction and loss of life on both sides was almost beyond comprehension, but the North suffered the greater damage, due to American saturation bombing and the scorched-earth policy of the retreating U.N. forces,” historian Charles K. Armstrong wrote in an essay for the Asia-Pacific Journal.

“The U.S. Air Force estimated that North Korea’s destruction was proportionately greater than that of Japan in the Second World War, where the U.S. had turned 64 major cities to rubble and used the atomic bomb to destroy two others. American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea—that is, essentially on North Korea—including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theatre of World War II.”

As Armstrong explains, this resulted in almost unparalleled devastation.

“The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war’s end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population. The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South although the DPRK does not have official figures, possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.”

U.S. officers and soldiers who surveyed the results of the air campaign in Korea were both awestruck and revolted. In his controversial book Soldier, Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert collects reflections on the carnage from America’s most prominent generals of the day.

“We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both,” recalled Gen. Curtis LeMay. “We killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue.”

LeMay was no newcomer to the horrors of war. He led several B-17 Flying Fortress bombing raids deep into German territory before going on to command the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, including the firebombings of Tokyo.

Another decorated veteran of World War II, Air Force four-star Gen. Emmett E. “Rosie” O’Donnell, Jr., who later served as Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces from 1959 to 1963, collaborated LeMay’s and Armstrong’s assessments.

“I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed,” O’Donnell said. “There is nothing left standing worthy of the name.”

Perhaps the most scathing account of the destruction came from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur had become a national hero for his exploits as commander of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East during the Philippines campaign of World War II, and as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers during the occupation of Japan before he was named Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command at the onset of the Korean Conflict.

Despite his long and storied career as an officer, he began butting heads with Pres. Harry Truman over how the war in Korea was being conducted. This led to Truman relieving him of his command on April 11, 1951. MacArthur subsequently testified at joint hearings before the Senate’s Committee on Armed Services and Committee on Foreign Relations to discuss his dismissal and the “Military Situation in the Far East.”

“I shrink—I shrink with a horror that I cannot express in words—at this continuous slaughter of men in Korea,” MacArthur lamented during the hearings.

“The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach the last time I was there. After I looked at the wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited … If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind.”

Neither North Korea nor the United States has ever been able to truly come to terms with the havoc wrought during the conflict.

In North Korea, the war is often referred to as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, with the Korean People’s Army being cast as the valiant protector of the virtuous Korean people in the face of American imperialism. North Korean casualties and atrocities—as well as the U.S. strategic bombing campaign—are downplayed or ignored while victories are often exaggerated. This revisionist history falls in line with the “Great Leader” cult of personality promulgated by Kim Il-sung and his heirs who have led the country since the end of the war.

In the United States, the war is somewhat lost in the shadows of World War II and the Vietnam War. It came as Americans were still recovering from the former and was, by comparison, a much smaller and shorter conflict. It lacked the media coverage and cultural impact of the prolonged war in Vietnam. Its legacy was also marred by a preponderance of atrocities—some of them carried out by the United States and its allies—and what in the minds of many Americans ultimately amounted to a defeat by a smaller and weaker enemy.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the United States acknowledged—after a lengthy investigation by the Associated Press—that a 1950 letter from U.S. Ambassador John J. Muccio authorized commanders in the field to adopt a policy of openly massacring civilians.

The policy led to massacres in No Gun Ri and Pohang, among others, in which U.S. soldiers and seamen knowingly fired on civilians. Refugees fleeing North Korea were particularly susceptible to attacks from the U.S. and South Korean militaries under the pretense that North Korean soldiers had infiltrated their numbers in order to orchestrate sneak strikes. Hundreds at a time were killed, many of them women and children.

”We just annihilated them,” Norman Tinkler, a former machine gunner, later told the Associated Press of the massacre at No Gun Ri.

Edward L. Daily, another soldier present at the No Gun Ri, was still haunted by what he witnessed there decades later.

”On summer nights when the breeze is blowing, I can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming,” Daily confessed. ”The command looked at it as getting rid of the problem in the easiest way. That was to shoot them in a group.”

In a follow-up interview with The New York Times, Daily said he could not confirm how many Koreans they killed that day—up to 400 is a common estimate—but added, “[W]e ended up shooting into there until all the bodies we saw were lifeless.”

Daily later earned a battlefield commission for his service in Korea.

A South Korean government commission investigating massacres and mass executions of political prisoners by the militaries of both sides claims to have documented “hundreds of sets of remains” from massacres and estimates that up to 100,000 people died in such incidents.

Any new conflict in Korea is likely to be just as vicious and deadly as the last, if not even more so. The destructive potential of the weaponry possessed by both sides has increased exponentially in the intervening decades. The United States’ nuclear arsenal has greatly expanded, and North Korea has developed its own limited nuclear capabilities.

Even without the use of nuclear weapons, the traditional weapons that would be used are far more powerful today than they were 75 years ago. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb the United States used in Afghanistan for the first time in April 2017 is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed. Upon impact, the 30-foot long, 22,000 pound, GPS-guided bomb emits a mushroom cloud that can be seen for 20 miles. It boasts a blast radius of one square mile, demolishing everything within that range.

The Air Force currently has only around 15 MOABs, and they are not capable of penetrating the numerous hardened underground tunnels, bunkers and bases the North Koreans have built. To address that problem, the Pentagon has developed a special bomb designed specifically for underground facilities of the kind built by North Korea and Iran. The 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator can supposedly blast through 200 feet of concrete to take out the most hardened subterranean lair.

North Korea’s arsenal isn’t anywhere nearly as advanced as that of the United States, but it is massive. Some analysts have suggested that the regime’s huge stockpile of traditional artillery and rockets would “flatten Seoul in the first half-hour of any confrontation.” That’s probably giving North Korea far too much credit, but its artillery and rocket stockpiles could definitely inflict serious casualties and structural damage to Seoul and its 10 million inhabitants.

Likewise, the bases housing the 29,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea are also within range of North Korea’s arsenal. History contains a warning—another war would be unpredictable, chaotic and exceedingly brutal.

This article first appeared in December 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: A North Korean man (R) on a bus waves his hand as a South Korean man weeps after a luncheon meeting during inter-Korean temporary family reunions at Mount Kumgang resort October 31, 2010. Kim Ho-Young/Korea Pool via REUTERS


Ahead of Trump's arrival to the summit, reports again turned to Kim's mysterious habits and travel logistics.

Kim was spotted by hidden cameras smoking a cigarette in rural China after most of his nearly three-day, 2,000-mile train journey to the summit in a rare candid glimpse of the leader standing with his sister and an aide nearby.

His choice to take a train to the summit was still up for speculation, with analysts floating several possibilities on the trip as possible commentary on North Korea's relations with China, one saying the leader didn't want to look needy.