Profile: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (2023)

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When Kim Jong-un took control of North Korea at just 27, the world knew little about him.

The sombre, subdued and rounded figure that was often the subject of international ridicule in those early days has now made North Korea a global threat in a way his father Kim Jong-il never did.

Kim Jong-un also did what no previous North Korean leader could - bring a sitting American president to the negotiating table.

But historic talks with the former US President Donald Trump and early moves to improve relations with the South led nowhere eventually.

Pyongyang's relationship with Washington and Seoul has since soured and turned increasingly volatile.

In November, the North fired at least 23 missiles, the most it has ever launched in a day, including one that landed less than 60km off the South's city of Sokcho - the closest a North Korean missile has come to South Korea's territorial waters.

Under Kim Jong-un, in 2022 alone, Pyongyang tested a record number of missiles, aimed two ballistic missiles over Japan, and has continued preparing for a seventh nuclear - one that analysts expect despite dire warnings from the US, South Korea and Japan.

'Morning Star King'

Soon after Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il and his third wife Ko Yong-hui, was born in 1983 or 1984, a state-sanctioned personality cult swung into action.

Mythology claimed that the Kims were a semi-divine dynasty who had a close affinity with the near-sacred Mount Paektu that sits on the Korean-Chinese border.

By that logic, the young Kim would be naturally endowed with heroic qualities and preternatural strength. In fact when he was announced as the leader in 2011, the pronouncement made clear that he "inherits the ideology, leadership, courage and audacity of [his father] Comrade Kim Jong-il".

Audacity was not an inappropriate word to use: within five years of coming to power, he had executed his uncle, is widely believed to have ordered the assassination of his half-brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport, and North Korea claimed it had developed a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted in an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

(Video) Everything We Know About Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong-un had little political or military experience, but almost immediately after the death of his father, he was hailed as "the great successor". He was also named head of the party, state and army, and took on the mantle of North Korea's Supreme Leader.

Image source, AFP

He was initially not thought to be able to take up his father's mantle. Analysts focused instead on his older brother Kim Jong-chol and older half-brother Kim Jong-nam.

Analysts saw him as the heir-to-be after he was awarded a series of high-profile political posts.

Swiss-educated like his brothers, Kim Jong-un avoided Western influence, returning home when not in school and dining out with the North Korean ambassador.

After coming back to Pyongyang, he is known to have attended the Kim Il-sung Military University.

His mother was thought to be Kim Jong-il's favourite wife, and she clearly doted on her son, reportedly calling him the "Morning Star King".

In August 2010, when Kim Jong-il visited China, one report said Kim Jong-un had accompanied his father on the trip.

By then he was widely seen as the heir-apparent and when Kim Jong-il died, this was quickly confirmed.

Military-first

Mr Kim made his first public speech as North Korea marked the 100th anniversary of the birthday of founder Kim Il-sung on 15 April 2012, praising the "military-first" doctrine and vowing the time when his nation could be threatened was "forever over".

Image source, KCNA

His single-minded development of North Korea's nuclear and missile programme appears to have led to rapid strides. Of the six nuclear tests that took place between 2006 and 2017, four happened under Kim Jong-un.

(Video) Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea | Biography

In 2017, Pyongyang also claimed that it had successfully tested a miniaturised hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto a long-range missile, but experts remain divided on how advanced its program is.

That year it also test-fired several missiles, claiming it had tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the US. This led to fresh UN sanctions and tensions with then US President Trump's administration also spiked, leading to a fiery war of words.

Yet, unexpectedly, Kim Jong-un offered an olive branch to Seoul in his new year's address, saying he was "open to dialogue".

A flurry of diplomatic activity followed, with high-level meetings between the two Koreas, and they even marched under one flag in the Olympic opening ceremony.

Kim Jong-un also made his first known foreign trip as leader around that time, taking a train to Beijing - North Korea's main ally and trading partner.

He also tried to improve relations with Mr Trump, and in April 2018, the two leaders held historic face-to-face talks in Singapore to broker deal that would possibly lead to denuclearisation of the North.

Image source, Reuters

However, relations between the US and North Korea later deteriorated, with a second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in March 2019 ending abruptly without any deal. Talks stalled after the Trump administration refused to lift sanctions until Pyongyang fully abandoned its nuclear programme.

Then, in January 2020, Kim Jong-un said he was ending the suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests put in place during talks with the US, and threatened that "the world will witness a new strategic weapon".

And in early 2022, North Korea announced that it had successfully launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile to date - the Hwasong-17, which was first unveiled in 2020.

But in November, an ICBM launch - Pyongyang's seventh this year - was said to have failed mid-flight. A South Korean defense source said this was believed to be the Hwasong-17.

Meet the Kims

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

(Video) Profile as Kim Jong Un marks decade of NKorea rule

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.

Kim Jong-un'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.

According to South Korea's spy agency, Ms Kim steers "overall state affairs" and has responsibility for Pyongyang's policy towards the US and South Korea, among other policy issues, and is "the de-facto number two leader". However, Seoul's spy agency has been wrong about North Korea in the past.

It is not known whether his elder brother, Kim Jong-chol, holds an official role.

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.

Kim Jong-un 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.

In April 2020, rumours about Kim Jong-un's health suggested he might have undergone a serious operation and there was uncertainty about his recovery.

The reports were based on South Korean fringe publication Daily NK and seemed to be backed up by the fact that Kim Jong-un had missed the anniversary of his grandfather's birthday - Kim Il-sung was the almost mythical founder of North Korea.

The 38-year-old's health has been a cause for concern for much of the time he has been the country's leader. He gained weight during his decade in power, leading to speculation that he could have been suffering from conditions like diabetes and gout.

Kim Jon-un's children are reported to be too young to be even considered successors and his death or long-term incapacity may lead to a power vacuum in the nuclear state, bringing fresh instability to the region.

More on this story

  • North Korea crisis in 300 words

    • 21 April 2020

    (Video) North Korea's Kim dynasty- BBC News
  • Meet North Korea's first family

    • 7 February 2018

  • Is Kim Jong-un getting a media makeover?

    • 20 April 2018

FAQs

Can North Koreans leave legally? ›

Aid workers are subjected to considerable scrutiny and they are also excluded from places and regions which the government does not want them to enter. Since citizens cannot freely leave the country, it is mainly from stories of refugees and defectors that the nation's human rights record has been constructed.

What type of leadership is North Korea? ›

The constitution defines North Korea as "a dictatorship of people's democracy" under the leadership of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), which is given legal supremacy over other political parties.

Who were the three dictators of North Korea? ›

  • Kim Il-sung.
  • Kim Jong-il.
  • Kim Jong-un.

What are North Korean leaders called? ›

The supreme leader (Korean: 최고령도자; MR: ch'oeko ryŏngdoja) of North Korea is the de facto paramount leader of the Workers' Party of Korea, the state and the Korean People's Army.

What can't you do in North Korea? ›

It's illegal to show disrespect or make jokes about North Korea, current or former leaders or their families. It's also illegal to talk to North Koreans without authorisation. Authorities may consider it spying if you do. Only shop at stores designated for foreigners.

Why can't Americans go to North Korea? ›

Do not travel to North Korea due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals. Exercise increased caution to North Korea due to the critical threat of wrongful detention.

Is North Korea still communist? ›

North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, continues to be a Jucheist state under the rule of the Workers' Party of Korea. In South Korea, the National Security Law has been used to criminalize advocacy of communism and groups suspected of alignment with North Korea.

What kind of society is North Korea? ›

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is an authoritarian state led by the Kim family for 70 years. Shortly after Kim Jong Il's death in late 2011, his son Kim Jong Un was named marshal of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.

Who won the Korean War? ›

The Korean War was a conflict that emerged after World War II. The Empire of Japan had occupied the Korean Peninsula during the war. After Japan's defeat, the victorious Allies split the peninsula on the 38th parallel. U.S. troops occupied the southern part, while Soviet troops occupied the northern part.

Who was the best North Korean leader? ›

Kim was regularly hailed by the media as the "fearless leader" and "the great successor to the revolutionary cause". He emerged as the most powerful figure behind his father in North Korea.

Which country helped North Korea? ›

China assisted North Korea during the Korean War (1950–53) against South Korean and UN forces on the Korean peninsula. Although China itself remained neutral, three million Chinese soldiers participated in the conflict as part of the People's Volunteer Army fighting alongside the Korean People's Army.

Why did North and South Korea split? ›

In 1950, after years of mutual hostilities, North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt to re-unify the peninsula under its communist rule. The subsequent Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, ended with a stalemate and has left Korea divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) up to the present day.

What do North Koreans call their language? ›

There are however a few differences between the North Korean and South Korean languages, both the spoken and written word. The first key difference is in the South Korean language, where the formal name used for the language spoken by its citizens is Hangugeo. In North Korea, it's called Chosŏnŏ.

What is the North Korean religion called? ›

Based on estimates from the late 1990s and the 2000s, North Korea is mostly irreligious, with the main religions being Shamanism and Chondoism. There are small communities of Buddhists and Christians.

What do North Koreans call Korea? ›

Korea is called Chosŏn (조선, 朝鮮) in North Korea, and Hanguk (한국, 韓國) in South Korea.

Can I bring a Bible to North Korea? ›

Owning a Bible is illegal in North Korea

North Korea has “Freedom of Religious Belief” but has tortured thousands for doing so.

Can Tourists drink North Korea? ›

There are no laws against public drinking, although of course it's not allowed to drink (or smoke) around political or revolutionary sites. During holidays and Sundays you'll find North Koreans in public parks and at the beach, drinking, singing, dancing or even putting on standup comedy routines.

What is the legal age of marriage in South Korea? ›

Under the Civil Code 2011 the minimum legal age of marriage is 18 years. However, minors can be married with parental consent.

What are strict rules in North Korea? ›

Any North Korean citizen is prohibited from leaving the country, and anyone who crosses the border without official documents will be shot by guards. The most severe punishment exists for those who try to escape or hide from Kim's totalitarian rule, and it is almost certainly always death.

Do North Koreans have phones? ›

North Korea has an adequate telephone system, with 1.18 million fixed lines available in 2008. However, most phones are only installed for senior government officials. Someone wanting a phone installed must fill out a form indicating their rank, why they want a phone, and how they will pay for it.

Do any Americans live in North Korea? ›

Americans in North Korea consist mainly of defectors and prisoners of war during and after the Korean War, as well as their locally born descendants. Additionally, there are occasional tours and group travel which consists of Americans via train or plane from China, some with temporal lodging and stay.

Is North Korea still corrupt? ›

Corruption in North Korea is a widespread and growing problem in North Korean society. North Korea is ranked 174 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (tied with Yemen and Afghanistan).

Who is better South Korea or North Korea? ›

North Korea's economy is isolated, closed and tightly controlled, whereas South Korea's economy is one of the world's most advanced and productive economies.

Is North Korea poor? ›

North Korea and Poverty

Since 1948, its population has reached 25 million. As a result of its economic structure and lack of participation within the world economy, poverty in North Korea is prevalent. Approximately 60% of North Korea's population lives in poverty.

How strict is life in North Korea? ›

North Korea is home to more than 25 million people, who live under a form of communist rule, which strictly controls all areas of daily life. People have to ask permission to travel around and it's difficult for visitors to enter the country too.

Does North Korea have Internet? ›

As of 2022, ordinary citizens with mobile devices do not have access to the global internet. Instead, these individuals are only able to access Kwangmyong, that is operated by the country. In terms of global internet access, this privilege is only granted to a small number of North Korean elites.

Is there crime in North Korea? ›

Every country has crime, and North Korea is no different. The most common crime is theft, which is so pervasive that it's hard to define it as a crime in the same way as other countries. Broadly speaking, it is the military's job to protect the lives and property of North Koreans.

Did the US ever lose a war? ›

However, the US was unable to get any significant victory in its wars abroad. America fought five major wars after 1945 including Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan in addition to some minor wars in Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. Except for the Gulf War in 1991, America lost all other wars.

Did the US lose Korean War? ›

In July 1950, North Korea defeated the United States Army. This wasn't supposed to happen. In the summer of 1950, America was still savoring the glow of absolute victory in World War II. There was the Soviet threat, to be sure, and a Communist bloc swelled by the massive addition of China in 1949.

Why did US invade Korea? ›

On June 27, 1950, President Truman ordered U.S. forces to South Korea to repulse the North's invasion. “Democrats needed to look tough on communism,” Kim says. “Truman used Korea to send a message that the U.S. will contain communism and come to the aid of their allies.”

Who's stronger North or South Korea? ›

North Korea enjoys a numerical advantage over South Korea in the number of ground troops and equipment. Korea's ground forces are highly motorized and very mobile. North Korea's guns generally have longer range and are more powerful than those of South Korea.

What rank is North Korea in power? ›

For 2022, North Korea is ranked 30 of 142 out of the countries considered for the annual GFP review. It holds a PwrIndx* score of 0.4621 (a score of 0.0000 is considered 'perfect').
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Who founded North Korea? ›

Kim Il-sung (/ˈkɪm ˈɪlˈsʌŋ, -ˈsʊŋ/; Korean: 김일성, Korean pronunciation: [kimils͈ʌŋ]; born Kim Song-ju, 김성주; 15 April 1912 – 8 July 1994) was a Korean politician and the founder of North Korea, which he ruled from the country's establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994.

How much money does the U.S. give North Korea? ›

The United States does not currently provide any aid to the DPRK government.

Which countries do not recognize North Korea? ›

North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), independent since 1948, is not recognised by 7 UN members states: Botswana, Estonia, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the United States; one UN observer: Vatican City; as well as one non-UN member: Taiwan.

Does China help North Korea? ›

China remains invested in ensuring North Korea's economic dependence, accounting for more than 90 percent of North Korea's total reported imports and exports and facilitating Pyongyang's efforts to obtain foreign currency in violation of sanctions.

Why did Japan give up Korea? ›

Instead, Japan tried to seek out Russian assistance to end the war, in which Japan schemed to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and the United States. This delayed Japan's surrender, allowing the Soviets to enter into the war, which in turn resulted in the division of Korea.

Is Japan richer than Korea? ›

It was headline news when the Japan Center for Economic Research predicted that Korea would surpass Japan in nominal GDP in 2027 and Taiwan do so in 2027.

Can North Koreans go to South Korea? ›

Much like in other Soviet, socialist, or Eastern Bloc countries, North Koreans can travel abroad with permission from the government.

How do North Koreans say hello? ›

Koreans say “안녕하세요 [an nyeong ha seyo]?” while slightly bowing their head when they greet others. “안녕하세요?”is used interchangeably to say “Hi, hello, good morning/afternoon/evening”. You can simply say “안녕?” when you are greeting your friends or a person younger than you.

What does Hello mean in North Korea? ›

안녕하세요 (Annyeong Haseyo) – “Hello”

This is your most common way to greet someone in Korean. It's the familiar, polite speech pattern. You use 하세요 (haseyo) to show a bit of extra respect. 하세요 comes from the verb 하다 (hada), which means “to do.”

What do North Koreans call ice cream? ›

얼음보숭이 is rarely used even in North Korea; 얼음과자 is more commonly used in North Korea to refer to ice cream.

Do Muslims live in North Korea? ›

Islam in North Korea

The Pew Research Center estimated that there were 3,000 Muslims in North Korea in 2010, up from 1,000 in 1990. The Iranian embassy in Pyongyang hosts Ar-Rahman Mosque, the only mosque in the country.

Which country has the most Muslims? ›

Muslims make up a majority of the population in 49 countries around the world. The country with the largest number (about 209 million) is Indonesia, where 87.2% of the population identifies as Muslim.

Are there any Muslims in Korea? ›

During this time, Muslims from North Africa to East Asia honor both the sacrifices made by Abraham and the end of the traditional season of pilgrimage to Mecca with acts of charity and prayer. Korea is no exception, with an estimated population of 150,000 Muslims, 45,000 of whom are native Korean.

What is America called in Korea? ›

“America” in Korean – 미국 (miguk)

You can say “America” in Korean as 미국 (miguk). A quick side note, the United States of America had previously aided South Korea during the Korean War before the Korean peninsula has been divided into South and North Korea.

Can people in North Korea leave? ›

Freedom of movement. North Korean citizens usually cannot freely travel around the country, let alone travel abroad. Emigration and immigration are strictly controlled.

Videos

1. A psychological profile of Kim Jong Un
(CBS News)
2. Everything We Know About Kim Jong Un
(Business Insider India)
3. Who is 'Supreme Leader' Kim Jong Un?
(ABC News)
4. Kim Jong Un's Bizzarre Reign | Long Story Short | NBC News
(NBC News)
5. Kim Jong-un: A Brighter Future?
(Biographics)
6. 10 years of North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un
(The Age & Sydney Morning Herald)
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