Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, made headlines by attending the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She was the first member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family, which has a monopoly on the wealth and political power of North Korea, to visit South Korea, and details about her family remain elusive to the rest of the world in many ways.
In the most recent Brookings essay, senior fellow Jung Pak shares her expertise on North Korea and insight on Kim Jong-un and his family.
WHY KIM JONG-UN
Kim Jong-un came to power with the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who died from a heart attack in December 2011. This was unsurprising in the Kim family, which has a history of heart disease. North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, also died from a heart attack.
If Kim Jong-Il had kept with Korean tradition, Pak writes in the essay, Kim Jong-un—his father’s third son—would not have been his father’s successor and instead his oldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, would have been chosen for succession. However, as Pak explains, Kim Jong-il reportedly dismissed Kim Jong-nam as unfit to lead North Korea because he was “tainted by foreign influence” when, in 2001, Jong-nam had been detained in Japan with a fake passport in a failed attempt to go to Tokyo Disneyland. It is said that he had suggested that North Korea undertake policy reform and open up to the West, enraging his father.
After, Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-chul was “deemed too effeminate” to rule. That left Kim Jong-un, the youngest of the three sons, to succeed his father as the head of North Korea.
*North Korea’s secrecy makes it difficult to verify information about Kim Jong-un’s children, including how many there are and when they were born. His wife’s birth date is also unconfirmed.
Jung Pak writes, “There had been signs before 2011 that Kim was grooming his son for the succession: he began to accompany his father on publicized inspections of military units, his birth home was designated a historical site, and he began to assume leadership titles and roles in the military, party, and security apparatus, including as a four-star general in 2010.”
PRUNING THE FAMILY TREE
Kim Jong-un has gone to deadly lengths to protect his power from anyone who might oppose him and his authority, including within his own family. Under his rule, North Korean agents reportedly used a chemical nerve agent to kill Kim’s half-brother Jong-nam at an international airport in Malaysia.
Additionally, Pak notes the public humiliation and reported execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013. Jang Song-thaek was labeled “human scum” and “worse than a dog” and then reportedly executed by an anti-aircraft gun for allegedly undermining the “unitary leadership of the party” and committing “anti-party and counterrevolutionary factional acts.”
KIM’S SOFTER SIDE
Kim Jong-un’s wife gives a softer side to the violence and control that define him. Pak explains that Ri Sol-ju, “provides the regime with a ’softer’ side, a thin veneer of style and good humor to mask the brutality, starvation, and deprivation endured by the people, while reports about the existence of possibly multiple children hint at Kim and his wife’s fecundity and the potential for the birth of another male heir to the Kim family dynasty (although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility for Kim to choose a daughter to lead North Korea, given his ’modern’ tendencies). For the toiling masses as well as for the elite, Ri, the glamorous and devoted wife, is an aspirational figure.”
KIM JONG-UN v. PAST KIMS
In many ways, Kim Jong-un’s life has been very different from that of his father and grandfather. His childhood of luxury and comfort was very different from their upbringing of war and crisis. In her essay, Jung Pak explains that Kim Jong-un, “has relied on military demonstrations and provocative actions to get his way, and has no experience in the arts of negotiation, compromise, and diplomacy.”
Pak describes Kim’s early days as leisurely, “vast estates with horses, swimming pools, bowling alleys, summers at the family’s private resort, luxury vehicles adapted so that he could drive when he was 7 years old. For Kim, skiing in the Swiss Alps and swimming in the French Riviera must have seemed part of his birthright.”
Even with what we know about Kim Jong-un’s family background and upbringing, it is still difficult to predict Kim’s actions and where the future will take North Korea. However, these insights into the personality and mentality of the North Korean leader help with our understanding of the leader and his country.
For more about Kim Jong-un’s motivations and goals for North Korea, see Jung Pak’s essay, “The Education of Kim Jong-un”
To watch Jung Pak discuss the personality and rule of Kim Jong-un at a Brookings event with other Brookings scholars, watch “The path forward for dealing with North Korea: Who is Kim Jong-un?”