Because there are hundreds of interests, bodies, and personalities within the Kim family whose competition and intrigues drive the government of North Korea, it can sometimes get kimpossible to keep up with them.
As a result, we've compiled this handy guide to the men and women (but mostly men) who run the world's most repressive and secretive nation.
Kim Il-sung - Suryong (Great/Fatherly/Supreme Leader), General Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, and Eternal President of the Republic
Kim Il-Sung is the founder of both the Kim Dynasty and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
He was born Kim Sŏng-ju on April 15, 1912, in the small village of Mangyongdae-Guyok in the Pangrim Mountains, just outside Pyongyang, on a dark and stormy nightnote . At the time of his birth, Korea was ruled by the Meiji Empire of Japan. Kim characterized his family as not wealthy, but never impoverished, managing to stay "one step away" from poverty. Officially, Kim's parents were Korean independence activists; Kim himself would also claim that they were also both Communist politicians and devout Christians, not unheard of even among Communists at the time.note At the time, Pyongyang had a large network of (mostly) American Protestant churches and was known in Kim's childhood as the Jerusalem of the East.
By 1920, when Kim was eight, his family had caused the Japanese enough trouble that they were forced to flee to Manchuria. In 1926, Kim's father died of third-degree frostbite; he left the 14-year-old Kim Song-ju with two FN Model 1900 pistols and a mission to fight the Japanese. From there, the story is disputed. The official North Korean line is that at 14, Kim founded the Down-With-Imperialism Union (considered the roots of the Korean Workers' party); at 19, he joined the Communist Party of China and united the disparate anti-Japanese guerillas in Korea;note and he started to write prolifically, making several policy predictions which later turned out to be spot-on (funny that). South Korea's official line until the The '80s was that the North Korean leader may have been a different person entirely who was given the original Kim Il-sung's identity by the Soviets; this has been largely debunked by Chinese and declassified Soviet records. The truth is likely somewhere in between; Kim was an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter before and during World War II. His career as such was either a stunning Alexandrian success (if you ask North Korea) or slightly above average (if you ask historical records).
Kim did have the distinction of being the last Korean guerrilla to hold any territory on the peninsula itself after his raid on Pochonbo in 1939. That only angered the Japanese, who by 1941 had driven his forces over the Amur River into the Soviet Union. (Kim's autobiography conveniently forgets to mention this.) Then the Soviets retrained him and his forces, turning the guerrilla core to a group of battle-hardened NCOs and junior officers. They created an air force, by 1950 training Korean pilots in the latest MiG-15 jet fighters at secret bases deep inside Russia. Kim himself became a Major in the Red Army and remained one until the end of World War II (he may even have been as high as Lieutenant-Colonel depending on the account).
At the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was divided into American and Soviet occupation zones; NKVD director Lavrentiy Beriya tapped Kim to run the Soviet zone. This promotion was a bit of a fluke, considering there were other more prominent nationalists who could serve as client leaders, and Kim's own prominence and conduct as a guerilla leader was pretty middling. Some theorize that other nationalists were too independent for Stalin's tastes, while Kim was seen as more compliant and obedient to Soviet interests.
In 1950, he convinced Stalin to allow him to invade South Korea and reunify the peninsula, beginning the Korean War. And Kim was initially successful; the Korean People's Army curb-stomped the South Koreansnote and practically destroyed the American 24th Infantry Divisionnote . The UN forces under famed American general Douglas MacArthur counterattacked swiftly with the landing at Inchon. By October 1950, Pyongyang had fallen, and Kim was pushed to the Chinese border. Then the Chinese jumped in, and with their help, Kim pushed the UN forces back south, until the Chinese found their supply lines critically overextended. Then the UN forces pushed back north to the 38th parallel, where a bloody stalemate lasted until the armistice that would pause the Korean War was worked out.note
Kim was left to rule over a devastated land. The UN air forces under Curtis LeMaynote had been merciless in their campaign; LeMay boasted that he grounded his bombers only when there were no targets left. 98% of Pyongyang was destroyed; it was the most devastated city in a bombing campaign in modern history. And this left Kim Il-sung a sterilized plot of land and a population emptied by war, something Christopher Hitchens characterized as "a laboratory, with controlled conditions, where he alone would be engineer of the human soul." As the ruler of North Korea, Kim Il-sung would prove to be a particularly vicious architect.
He began with a program of collectivization of industry, agriculture, and services. Five years after the end of the Korean War, every single economic enterprise in North Korea was in the hands of the Korean Workers' Party. "Foreign influences" such as Chinese troops were removed from Korea. Arms production and heavy industry were prioritized, and North Korea retained a massive army to straddle the Korean DMZ. Kim's North Korea was the more prosperous Korea for a short while at least, with even many non-communists praising 1960s Pyongyang as an economic miracle.note
But despite this, Kim's hold on power was shaky in the country's early years. He had to fend off China and the USSR, who both wanted to use North Korea as a puppet state, and who provided Kim with the resources needed to build his state. He used the chaos of the Sino-Soviet split as an opportunity to purge those influences from his government and take control of the country. Kim's purges were unique in that they didn't even bother with the formalities of trial; even Mao and Stalin accorded their victims the dignity of a Kangaroo Court. Kim also started the trend of purging not only the dissidents themselves (real or imagined), but their families over three generations, who would all be sent to brutal prison camps; children were born in the camps because of something a great-grandparent supposedly did. Despite Kim's Protestant background, the once prominent Christian community of Pyongyang was persecuted, driven into exile in the South, or straight up purged by his government, with their role in Korea's early independence movement erased and whitewashed by North Korean propaganda as a pro-American fifth column.
Kim initially backed the Soviet Union during the Sino-Soviet split, building up a personality cult which influenced both Nicolae Ceaucescu in Romania and Enver Hoxha in Albania. Throughout The '60s, Kim tried (and failed) to replicate the success of the Viet Cong in South Korea, culminating in a raid on the residence of the South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee in 1968. He would predict several times during that period that the peninsula would be reunified in 1972, but the raid would be his last attempt to reconquer the South. 1972 instead saw the adoption of a new constitution in North Korea, entrenching Kim's rule over the country. In 1982, Kim named his son Kim Jong-il his successor. But by the 1990s, things were falling apart. The total collapse of the Communist bloc, decades of economic mismanagement, and severe natural disasters were causing huge problems. North Korea could not feed its people, power its industry, or trade with anyone other than Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, and China. The UN estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million people died of starvation in what North Korea calls the "Arduous March", a period spanning the rules of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (some statistics put the death toll as high as 3 million).
On July 8, 1994, Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack at the age of 82. The country ground to a halt; millions turned out to mourn, and foreign diplomats in Pyongyang even reported thousands of suicides. But luckily for the Korean Workers' Party and the North Korean state, he had left a son — his reincarnation — to carry on his tyranny. And Kim is still technically the head of state of North Korea as its Eternal President — not even death can stop him.
And by the way, the reason he is always pictured and photographed looking to his right is to hide some very unpleasant tumoral calcinosis, which manifested itself as an enormous baseball-sized tumor on the right side of his neck. Here's a rare photo showing it in full.◊
Kim Jong-il - Suryong, Eternal General Secretary of the Korean Worker's Party and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army
Kim Jong-il was born in a secret North Korean guerilla camp on the slopes of Mount Paektu, a mountain sacred to all Korea, in 1942. His birth was foretold by the swallows that nest on the slopes, a double rainbow was seen, and a new star appeared in the heavens. The local birds sang songs of praise in human voice.
Or at least, that what the North Korean government would have you believe. In fact, Soviet records show that Kim Jong-il was born in the small Russian fishing village of Vyatskoye on the Amur River, just outside Khabarovsk. His birth certificate lists his name as "Yuri Ursenovich Kim"; he would only be called Kim Jong-il when he came to Korea for the first time at the age of four. He had an elder brother, Shura Kim, who tragically died in a pool in Pyongyang (probably not young Kim's doing, because that's a little too early a start for his career in supervillainy). North Korean official line is that Kim Jong-il was educated in war-torn Pyongyang during the Korean War; more likely, he was educated in China to ensure the safety of the son of the Great Leader. He would later attend Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. He received English-language education in Malta as a guest of the island's Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff.
Kim started with a number of minor posts in the Korean Workers' Party. Most infamously, he was the head of the Movie and Arts Department, where he kidnapped South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok and convinced him (at gunpoint) to make a North Korean monster movie. But by 1980, Kim Il-sung had decided that his son was ready to rule. He was given senior posts in the Politburo, the Military Commission, and the Party Secretariat. The political machine was already building his personality cult, with him being referred to as "Dear Leader", "Fearless Leader", "Great Father", and "Respected Commander". He was officially named Kim Il-sung's successor in 1982, and in 1983, he ordered the Rangoon bombing, which killed four South Korean cabinet ministers (and led to the only speech he would make that has ever been televised in North Korea.note ). Finally, in 1991, he was named Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, in essence the supreme authority over North Korea in all but name.
Kim Jong-il took over officially on his father's death in 1994, but there may have been a minor power struggle, and it was not until 1995 that the new Kim would make a public appearance. By late 1995, though, it was clear that Kim Jong-il was North Korea's ruler for the foreseeable future. Every five years, Kim was unanimously reelected leader (funny that). But Kim's economic policy was poor, and he could not slow down the "Arduous March" that killed as many as 3 million people. Despite his country's hardships, Kim enjoyed luxuries like cognac, lobsters (which he dined on with silver chopsticks), and even a servant who would throw away rice grains found to be imperfect. Kim was eventually forced to open North Korea up to a modicum of outside investment. He did so by establishing a "Sunshine Policy" with the South and opening (and closing, and reopening) the Kaesong Industrial Region, a small section of North Korea dedicated to foreign investment.
Rumors of his demise started in 2008, when he missed the Olympic Torch Relay in Pyongyang. Scuttlebutt at the time was either a coup attempt or a serious bout of ill health; the latter is more likely considering that a French neurosurgeon was flown to Pyongyang to treat him that year. Kim would hang on until December 17, 2011, when, according to South Korea's intelligence agencies, advisors informed him of serious construction flaws (including leakages) in a hydroelectric power plant near the city of Huichon that was crucial to North Korea's economy, and being Kim Jong Il, he flew into a rage due to the obvious You Have Failed Me, got on the North Korean Leader's trainnote to inspect the site, and died of a heart attack on the train.note The world at large only found out a week later. His death was met with similar hysterical reactions as his father's was, because apparently in North Korea it is a severely punishable offense to not grieve hysterically enough when the leader dies. He left the family business to...
Kim Jong-un - Suryong, First Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea, First Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army.
Kim Jong-un is something of an unknown quantity. He was born in 1982, 1983 or 1984; when he took over, he was the youngest head of state in the world. However, as of 2020, he has lost the title and is the third-youngest. note He attended school in Switzerland under the pseudonym Pak-un; those who knew him described him as awkward around girls, a lover of basketball, and good at sports (weird considering his current reputation). He returned to North Korea in the early 2000s and attended the officer training academy at Kim Il-sung University. But beyond that, there wasn't much planned for him, because he wasn't expected to be the successor. Kim's older brother Kim Jong-nam was the original heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, but he lost that title when he was caught trying to sneak into Japan with a fake passport to go to Disneyland Tokyo (yes, really). Kim Jong-Un shot to prominence — and his father's favor — after that.
After Kim Jong-il's death, Marshal Ri Yong-ho, head of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, smoothed Kim Jong-un's way to power and oversaw the handover of allegiance from the military to the new Kim. In 2012, Kim was appointed Marshal, the highest rank in the KPA not held by his father or grandfather. The grateful Kim pledged to share power with the loyal Ri and reward him with vast sums of money. Oh no, wait, we mean he had him executed.note It wouldn't stop there; in 2013, Kim would execute his own uncle, Jang Sung-taek; as he was the Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Commission, he was effectively the most powerful man in the DPRK after Kim himself. The charges against Jang were morbidly hilarious and included "clapping half-heartedly" and having a granite monument to Kim moved to a "shaded corner". There were even claims in 2015 that he had his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, Jang's wife, poisoned the previous year for complaining about her husband's death. (He hadn't.)
Not long after he gained power, the young Kim would marry young ex-singer and newsreader Ri Sol-ju, whom state media described as his "companion". But this didn't come without intrigue; he apparently had a relationship with a different singer from his wife's old troupe. Sources claim that his father didn't approve and forced him to break it up. Rumors suggested that this singer was executed in August 2013 for illegal distribution of sex videos; further rumors suggested she was framed by the now-First Lady Kim, who was afraid of being upstaged in politics. But she showed up alive and well in 2014, disproving the rumors.
They’re believed to be the parents of three children. A son who was born in 2010, a daughter who was born in late 2012 or early 2013, and a child of unknown sex who was born in 2017. His daughter, named Ju Ae, began popping up with him at public events in 2022 with many taking it as a sign he was grooming her to be his successor. Almost nothing is known about her or her siblings, who’ve never been publicly photographed or named.
The world is still struggling to decide what to make of Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, among his first acts as Leader was to announce economic and social reforms, moving toward a Chinese-style semi-market economy. On the other hand, those close to him (such as Kim Jong-il's personal chef Kenji Fujimoto) describe him as almost identical to his father in personality. His moves since announcing reform have not been encouraging. He executed all those people who tried to help him, he's exacerbated tensions on the Korean peninsula, he's shut down the Kaesong Industrial Region, and he continues to promote North Korea's nuclear weapons program and threaten his enemies with annihilation.
Kim Il-sung's first wife and mother of Kim Jong-il and Kim Kyong-hui (see below). She was a seamstress and cook in Kim Il-sung's guerrillas. Her official biography says that she and Kim Il-sung were a Battle Couple who fought side-by-side in various anti-Japanese actions. Others think it more likely she was simply a particularly attractive camp follower Kim Il-sung ordered to bed with him. Russian sources fondly remember her as a good cook, vivacious conversationalist, and friendly host. She died in 1949, though the cause of death is unknown. The official version is that she died due to "hardships from her guerrilla activities". Others report that she died in childbirth or of tuberculosis, and there are persistent rumors that she was shot.
Since his ascension, Kim Jong-il built up a large personality cult around her, touting her as one of the "Three Great Generals of Songun Korea". She is regularly commemorated and mentioned by state media.
Brother of Kim Il-sung, uncle of Kim Jong-il, and great uncle of Kim Jong-un, Kim Yong-ju was eight years his brother's junior. He studied in Moscow and was a keen philosopher. His Russianized ways and more classical view of Marxism earned his brother's ire; his political allies were removed, and he himself was sidelined in favor of Kim Jong-il. Eventually, Kim Il-sung is believed to have physically attacked him. He spent the 1980s under house arrest, until Kim Jong-il brought him back in 1993 to serve as honorary Vice President of the DPRK, and then honorary Vice President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, a post he he held until his death in 2021. He was 101 years old.
Kim Il-sung's second consort, mother of Kim Kyong-jin, Kim Yong-il and Kim Pyong-il (see below). She was last heard of in 1998, when she resigned from her post as Chairwoman of the Central Committee of the Korean Women's Association. She was reported to have died in a car accident in Beijing in 2001, but she has also been reported alive as late as 2011. She had been confirmed to have died in 2014.
Kim Jong-il's sister, born in 1946. She attended Kim Il-sung University, Moscow State University, and the Higher Party School. She met Jang Sung-taek as a student and later married him. Jang was a senior government official for many years, until 2013 when he was declared an enemy of the state, executed, and given the full Trotsky treatment. She was involved in the North Korean Foreign Office during The '70s and headed the Light Industry department of the government until 2012. She is the highest-ranked woman in the DPRK and the Korean People's Army, serving as the Secretary for Organisation of the Workers' Party of Korea. She and Jang had a single daughter who lived in Paris; when the daughter was called back to North Korea in 2006 and asked to leave her boyfriend, she committed suicide instead.
Kim Jong-il's younger brother. Allegedly a womaniser and debauchee during his teenage years, he is reported to have attempted to build a powerbase for a takeover of North Korea after Kim Il-sung's death. Kim Jong-il reported him to their father, and Pyong-il fell out of favor. He was Reassigned to Antarctica, being given various ambassadorial postings in Eastern Europe. He was North Korean ambassador to Poland from 1998 to 2015. Apparently he was something of a rare beast in Warsaw's diplomatic community, as he only ever attended Chinese, Russian, Algerian, and Syrian functions. He was transferred to Czech Republic in 2015 and returned to North Korea in 2019.
Ko Young-hee, The Respected Mother who is the Most Faithful and Loyal Subject to the Dear Leader Comrade Supreme Commander, Mother of Pyongyang, and the Mother of Great Songun Korea.
Kim Jong-il's wife, and mother of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-chul and Kim Yo-Jong. A Japanese-Korean woman who was born in 1952 as part of the zainichi Korean community, she was repatriated to North Korea in the 1960s. Her father worked in a sewing factory for the Imperial Japanese Army. She joined a dance troupe in Pyongyang, where she caught the eye of Kim Jong-il. As North Korea's songbun caste system considers the Japanese (or people who collaborated with them) the worst of the worst, most North Koreans have no idea that she has Japanese blood, and her real name is a state secret.note "Ko Young-hee" is what most people called her, but the latest propaganda film about her life named her "Lee Eun-mi". She died of breast cancer in Paris in 2004.
Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chul
Kim Jong-un's elder brothers. Kim Jong-nam was the front-runner to succeed Kim Jong-il — until he was caught trying to enter Japan on a forged Dominican passport. His purpose? To go to Tokyo Disneyland. He was believed to live in Macau, China, but he did return for his father's funeral in 2011. He was killed in February 2017 in Kuala Lumpur International Airport by the plot of, allegedly, North Korean agents. Probably ordered by his half-brother.
Kim Jong-chul was the obvious next in line, but his father considered him too "weak" and "effeminate" to be the leader. It is unknown if this is because he was simply overly sensitive, outright homosexual, or (gasp) concerned about the welfare of the North Korean people.
The younger sister of Kim Jong-Un. Considered to be the heir presumptive to North Korea's leadership, by virtue of being the closest adult relative in high favor, with all other possible contenders in the family tree being in exile, in disgrace, or dead. She is de facto in charge of the North Korean Propaganda and Agitation Department, putting her in charge of what information is seen by the North Korean people and what image is presented to the outside world, and temporarily took over the state duties of her brother while he underwent medical treatment; with multiple people, including South Korea’s intelligence agency, referring to her as the de facto second in command of North Korea as a whole. Visited South Korea for government meetings during the 2018 Olympics, the first time a direct descendant of the Kim family has done so since the Korean War, and also marking the first time casual outside observers even knew she existed. She spearheaded the two United States-North Korea summits in 2018-19 and is considered almost scary competent at her job of public relations, especially contrasted with the sybaratic excesses and megalomania of most of the rest of her family. Has become something of a minor social media celebrity due to being a young female government official from the world's most oppressive regime while looking cute as a button. Allegedly as ruthless as her brother, if not more so.