Kim Jong Il was the leader of North Korea from the time of the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 to his own death in 2011. Kim Jong Il never took over presidency. His father remained president even after his death. Instead, his main titles and leadership claims were as chairman of the National Defense Commission, which controls the military, and general secretary of the Worker’s Party, the only real political party in North Korea.

Jean H. Lee of Associated Press wrote: “Even as the world changed around him, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il remained firmly in control, ruling absolutely at home and keeping the rest of the world on edge through a nuclear weapons program. Inheriting power from his father, he led his nation through a devastating famine while frustrating the U.S. and other global powers with an on-again, off-again approach to talks on giving up nuclear arms in return for food and other assistance. Kim was one of the last remnants of a Cold War-era that ended years earlier in most other countries. [Source: Jean H. Lee, The Associated Press, December 18, 2011]

Among the many names accorded Kim Jong-il were Guiding Star of the 21st Century, Glorious General Who Descended from Heaven, Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, Sun of the Communist Future, and Bright Sun of the 21st Century. On special occasions he was called the Highest Incarnation of Revolutionary Comradely Love, or Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Commander. On his 63rd birthday in February 2005. Rodong Shinmun, the official paper of the Korean Workers' party, trumpeted him as “An illustrious commander, endowed with outstanding commandership art and matchless courage and pluck.”

Kim Jong Il was named General Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) in October 1997; a year later, he was reconfirmed as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest office of state in North Korea. At public events, when he showed up, Kim sat or stood silently, occasionally clapping. His only recorded public utterance — 'Glory to the heroic soldiers of the people's army!' — was made into a microphone during a 1992 military parade.

After his father's death Kim Jong Il was given the name of 'the Great Successor" not "Great Leader" used by father. Kim Jong Il's hereditary claims to power fly in the face of Marxist ideology. The North Korean Dictionary of Political Terminologies described hereditary rule as “a reactionary custom of exploitative societies,” “originally a product of slave societies,” “later adopted by feudal lords as a meas to perpetuate dictatorial rule.”

Kim Jong Il has managed to stay in power despite prediction by many that he would be overthrown or lose power. He reportedly insisted that all soldiers be disarmed before he visits a military unit despite propaganda claim his first clothes were “a battle-smoke-scented guerilla uniform...He experienced two revolution wars before his teens...He enjoys a nap in a running car or firing range rather than in a quiet office room.”

Kim Jong Il’s Ascension to Power

According to “Governments of the World”: Kim Il Sung, according to most observers, began preparing his son to succeed him as early as 1971. Over two decades, the younger Kim was given positions of increasing importance and authority, culminating with his designation as supreme commander of the Korean People's Army in December 1991. When Kim Jong Il finally assumed formal control of North Korea, it marked the first dynastic succession ever in a communist regime. It should be noted, however, that Kim Jong Il's accession was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, it took three years after his father's death until he assumed complete control [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities, Thomson Gale, 2006].

“With only one major leadership transition in its first fifty years of existence, North Korea's political system is tightly controlled. Indeed, North Korea in practice has been a totalitarian dictatorship. Accordingly, political, social, and economic power in North Korea is highly centralized, although due to the extremely opaque nature of the North Korean regime, it is difficult to say exactly how power and authority is distributed and exercised. What is clear, however, is that the military and the KWP have been the two key political institutions in North Korea since the country's inception.

“In the early years, the KWP played an instrumental and more autonomous role in North Korean politics as various leaders, including Kim Il Sung, vied for control of the party apparatus. By 1960, Kim had succeeded in purging all his rivals, and thereafter he was able to completely dominate the KWP. Since then,the KWP has served as the primary vehicle of policy making in North Korea. It operates through the national party congress, which is the supreme party organ. The party congress approves reports of the party organs, adopts basic party policies and tactics, and elects members to the KWP Central Committee and the Central Auditing Committee. Although North Korea also has a formal governmental structure — with a prime minister, a cabinet called the Central People's Committee, and a parliament (the Supreme People's Assembly) — most observers agree that none of the officials besides Kim Jong Il has real power. To a certain extent, the same can be said of the KWP, whose core membership has been handpicked by Kim Jong Il and a few loyal lieutenants.

“The sheer size of North Korea's military — the fourth largest standing army in the world with an estimated 1.2 million soldiers — makes it a pivotal political and institutional force. Even more important, the North Korean army has, from the country's inception, been tightly integrated into the North Korean political system. It served as the essential base of power for Kim Il Sung and was a cornerstone of Kim's concept of juche, which was based as much on military self-reliance as economic self-reliance.

“Since Kim Jong Il assumed power, moreover, the military has become even more entrenched. This is reflected in the status of the National Defense Commission, which not only exercises direct control over North Korea's armed forces, but is also, in practice, the highest state body in the country. As chairman of the National Defense Committee, therefore, Kim Jong Il became vested with supreme executive power. In this regard, it is worth noting that, unlike many other military-dominated dictatorships, the autonomy of the North Korean army has, for the most part, been held in check. In fact, there has never been a successful military coup in North Korea, although a planned coup was uncovered and derailed by secret police in 1995.

Kim Jong Il’s Involvement in Terrorism Plots in the 1970s and 80s

Defectors have accused Kim of involvement in the 1983 attempt to assassinate the South Korean President, Chun Doo-hwan, and in the 1987 downing of a Korean Airlines airliner in which 115 people died. In October 1983, a bomb planted by North Korean spies exploded during an official visit by South Korean president Chun Doo Hwon to Rangoon, Burma. Chun survived, but 21 other people were killed including 17 in his entourage, which included four cabinet members, two top Presidential advisors, an ambassador and 10 other top South Korean officials. The Burmese captured two North Korean army agents who were later found guilty of murder. Pyongyang denied involvement, saying the whole thing was staged to discredit the North. Unpersuaded, South Korea broke off diplomatic relations with North Korea.

In November, 1987, two North Koreans posing as Japanese tourists bombed a civilian Korean airliner. Korean Air flight 858, traveling from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi to Seoul, blew up in midair over the Andaman Sea near Burma. All 115 people were killed. The terrorist act was believe to have been in retaliation for North Korea being barred from the 1988 Olympics.

A female North Korean agent, Kim Hyun Hee, and her male companion slipped a bomb planted in a radio on the plane. The two agents got on the plane in Baghdad and got off in Abu Dhabi. They boarded a another plane for Bahrain, where they caught by security personnel after the bomb exploded. After being caught the two North Korean tried to commit suicide by taking poison pills (with highly lethal cyanide gas) hidden in a pack of cigarettes. Kim survived but her companion didn’t. Kim later tried to bite off her tongue so she couldn't talk. Later, she said that her handlers told her that the attack was ordered by Kim Jong Il.

In 2002, Kim admitted during a summit with the prime minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi that he also had knowledge of the abduction of more than a dozen Japanese people in the 1970s and 1980s. He is also thought to have been behind the abductions of many South Koreans, including, famously, the film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, and citizens of other countries, adding to his image as a shadowy, evil figure.

Kim Jong Il’s Accession in the Early 1990s

Beginning in the fall of 1975, North Koreans used the term party center to refer to Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il is reported to have concentrated a great deal of effort on the performing arts, and many artists began to use the term when referring to Kim in articles in K lloja. However, for a few years after its initial introduction the term was used only infrequently because Kim Il Sung's efforts to promote his son met some resistance. Many of Kim Jong Il's opponents have been purged by Kim Il Sung, however, and neither Kim faces any active opposition any longer. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Kim Il Sung was awarded the rank of generalissimo (taewnsu) on April 13, 1992. On April 20, 1992, Kim Jong Il, as supreme commander of the armed forces, was given the title marshal (wnsu) of the DPRK. Kim Il Sung was the president and chairman of the National Defense Commission with command and control of the armed forces until Kim Jong Il assumed the latter position in April 1993. O Chin-u also became a marshal.*

There were many scenarios for leadership succession. Some of the prospects are based on a common postulation that Kim Il Sung's succession scheme will take at least a few years because of the decades-long preparation of a succession plan. South Korean scholar Yang Sung-Chul labels this "positive skepticism" and calls short-term failure, such as a coup d'état or a revolution, "negative skepticism." "Negative skepticism" is not to be dismissed, however, because of Kim Jong Il's weaknesses — his lack of charisma, poor international recognition, and unknown governing skills — as well as the sagging domestic economy and external factors such as inter-Korean, Japan-DPRK, and United States-DPRK relations.*

Kim Jong Il's appointment as commander of the Korean People's Army suggests that the succession issue finally has been solved because the military was once considered Kim's weak point; he already has full control of the state and the economic administration. Kim Jong Il also manages political affairs and KWP businesses as a primary authority and handles symbolic roles such as meeting with foreign leaders and appearing at national celebrations.*

In addition, Kim Jong Il plays a prominent role in the KWP propaganda machine — mass media, literature, and art. Many literary and art works — including films, operas, and dramas — are produced under the revolutionary tradition of the KWP and Kim's guidance. Kim uses popular culture to broaden his public image and gain popular support.*

Kim Jong Il has tried to expedite economic growth and productivity using the Three Revolution Team Movement and the Three Revolution Red Flag Movement. Both movements are designed to inspire the broad masses into actively participating in the Three Revolutions. At the Fifth Party Congress, Kim Il Sung emphasized the necessity of pressing ahead more vigorously with the three revolutions to consolidate the socialist system. In response, Kim Jong Il developed the follow-up slogan, "Let us meet the requirements of the juche in ideology, technology and culture." Most units forged ahead with "ideological education" to teach the party members and other workers to become revolutionaries of the juche idea. In many spheres of the national economy, productivity also is expected to increase as a result of the technology emphasis of the campaigns. In addition, the "cultural revolution" addresses promoting literacy and cultural identity.*

Kim Jong Il’s Leadership

In a review of the book: “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea” by Jasper Becker, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the New York Times: Kim “Is there a modern world leader as poorly understood as Kim Jong Il? Selig Harrison, a North Korea expert who has traveled to Pyongyang numerous times, regards Kim as a kind of Asian Gorbachev, a man pushing ''reform by stealth.'' For President Bush, by contrast, the North Korean leader is a ''pygmy,'' a mindless, brutal leader...Veteran Asia correspondent Jasper Becker makes a powerful case for defining Kim once and for all — not as an ordinary, if nuclear-tipped, dictator, but as an extraordinarily skillful tyrant presiding over the worst man-made catastrophe in modern history, worse than Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or the Soviet Union in the 1930's. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, August 7, 2005]

Relying on extensive interviews with North Korean exiles, he offers a highly readable narrative that unearths Kim's history, probes his decision-making style and details the grotesque consequences of those decisions.“Becker traces Kim's destructive behavior to the early days of the world's only Communist dynasty. The regime was founded on lies, with Kim Il Sung, the father of the present ruler, destroying all evidence of Soviet participation in his rise to power and brainwashing Koreans far more extensively than other Communist nations brainwashed their citizens. In 1963, a Soviet diplomat in the North called Kim Il Sung's rule a ''political gestapo.''

“At least Kim Il Sung enjoyed some respect within his country for his role as the founder of the North. He also faced some checks, admittedly limited, on his power: unlike Kim Jong Il, he held regular meetings of cadres. But after his father's death in 1994, Kim Jong Il transformed North Korea from an odious totalitarian regime into something actually worse, ''a Marxist Sun King'' state that was ready to oversee an unparalleled orgy of extravagance and absolutism.

“Hunger had been a problem under Kim Il Sung. But under Kim Jong Il, Becker writes, it became possibly ''the most devastating famine in history,'' with death rates approaching 15 percent of the population, surpassing ''any comparable disaster in the 20th century,'' even China's under Mao. By some estimates, over three million North Koreans have died, more victims than in Pol Pot's Cambodia, and international agencies are warning that this year may bring particularly serious hunger.

“Those who protested were sent to an extensive gulag system, which may have resulted in the deaths of one million people. In this internal slave state, Becker suggests, tests of chemical weapons are carried out on prisoners, and pregnant women whose children were tainted with foreign blood have been forced to have abortions. Kim Jong Il has ''resisted adopting every policy that could have brought the misery to a quick end,'' Becker says, making ''the suffering he inflicted on an entire people an unparalleled and monstrous crime.''

“Despite the famine, and despite some intelligence assessments that his regime was about to collapse, Kim Jong Il has survived in power for over a decade. Becker is strongest in laying blame, accusing the international community of tacitly acquiescing in Kim's charnel house. United Nations agencies that are supposed to monitor the humanitarian crisis in North Korea have averted their gaze, refusing to confront a host government. They have declined to call the North's hunger a famine, and allowed Pyongyang to control food aid, all but assuring that it would be channeled to Kim's associates.”

Kim Jong Il’s Hold on Power

Justin McCurry wrote in The Observer: Kim Jong Il’s “vivid private life can sometimes suggest a comic figure. He is, however, the dictator of one of the world's most illiberal societies, with its grinding poverty, labour camps and relentless pursuit of ideological purity among its 23 million people. So is he mad? Not according to Jerrold Post, a political psychologist at George Washington University...: 'He's crazy like a fox, but he does have a very dangerous personality, what I call a malignant narcissism, which means such self-absorption that you can't really empathise with the pain and suffering of others, including the pain and suffering of his own people. He has had millions die and it does not have much impact on him.' [Source: Justin McCurry, The Observer, The Guardian, July 9, 2006]

“Defectors say Kim is more ruthless than his father ever was, micro-managing just about every facet of the regime, even the size of accommodation for other party officials, while he chooses from among his eight luxury homes, one for each North Korea province. But signs of internal dissent have never produced the homegrown upheaval many hope for. In April 2004, a huge explosion rocked Ryongchon railway station, killing 54 people and injuring 1,249 others, just nine hours after Kim had passed through on his way back from China. Though some insist it was an assassination attempt gone wrong, others say the evidence points to a coincidental accident.

In 2005 “hopes that change was in the air rose again after reports that portraits of Kim were being removed from sites in Pyongyang and that the media were no longer referring to him as the Dear Leader. Either there was a deliberate campaign of disinformation or the changes were ordered by Kim himself in an attempt to quell the international ridicule he had learned of during his frequent sessions online. The insurrection never came.

Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Kim's hold on power depends not only on his willingness to impose misery upon his people but also on the willingness of the North Korean elite to accept their privileges and say nothing. Many North Koreans are well aware of the repressed and backward state of their homeland and wish it were otherwise; recent visitors say North Koreans quietly express a desire for greater contact with the outside world. The problem is that none of them are prepared to force or even nudge their wishes upon Kim Jong Il. The Dear Leader understands, as smart tyrants do, that perpetual clapping is generated by terror. That is why he works 20 hours a day to make sure the applause of fear does not stop. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

“When his regime is brought to an end, as one day it will be, the cause will not be his napping. Kim has had plenty of time, and he has worked hard, to insulate himself from the type of events that have led to the collapse of other tyrannies and dynasties. But the downfall of dictators is unpredictable. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of its Eastern European brethren, the easing of Maoist discipline in China — these happened in ways that were not foreseen. It is very likely, too, that the unimaginable will get Kim Jong Il in the end.

Policy and Policy-Making Under Kim Il Sung

Despite scarce resources, Kim Jong Il maintained the 'military first' policy of Kim Il Sung. According to Associated Press: “He faithfully carried out his father's policy of "military first," devoting much of the country's scarce resources to its troops — even as his people suffered from a prolonged famine — and built the world's fifth-largest military. Kim also sought to build up the country's nuclear arms arsenal, which culminated in North Korea's first nuclear test explosion, an underground blast conducted in October 2006. Another test came in 2009, prompting U.N. sanctions. [Source: Associated Press, December 19, 2011]

“North Korea, long hampered by sanctions and unable to feed its own people, is desperate for aid. Flooding in the 1990s that destroyed the largely mountainous country's arable land left millions hungry. Following the famine, the number of North Koreans fleeing the country through China rose dramatically, with many telling tales of hunger, political persecution and rights abuses that officials in Pyongyang emphatically denied. Kim often blamed the U.S. for his country's troubles and his regime routinely derides Washington-allied South Korea as a "puppet" of the Western superpower. Defectors from North Korea described Kim as an eloquent and tireless orator, primarily to the military units that form the base of his support.

“The world's best glimpse of the man was in 2000, when the liberal South Korean government's conciliatory "sunshine" policy toward the North culminated in the first-ever summit between the two Koreas and followed with unprecedented inter-Korean cooperation. A second summit was held in 2007 with South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun. But the thaw in relations drew to a halt in early 2008 when conservative President Lee took office in Seoul pledging to come down hard on communist North Korea.

“Disputing accounts that Kim was "peculiar," former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright characterized Kim as intelligent and well-informed, saying the two had wide-ranging discussions during her visits to Pyongyang when Bill Clinton was U.S. president. "I found him very much on top of his brief," she said.

Kim Jong Il Tapes

When well-known South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee and her husband filmmaker Shin Sang Ok escaped from North Korea after had been taken there by force they carried with them secretly made recordings of private conversations with Kim Jong Il. Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer Magazine: “On the tapes, Kim readily acknowledges that North Korea's brand of socialism is flawed; that its technology is at a 'kindergarten level'; that its people lack enterprise and motivation because they are given none of the individual incentives that competition thrives on; and that anyone else in North Korea who said any of these things would be considered an ideological deviant, and purged. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

The tapes reveal Kim Jong-il making fun of his short stature and complaining about how people in North Korea were 'close minded'. On the North Korean elite, Kim said, they are “stuck inside the fence [and that] they only see their own things and they are happy with it”. The recordings also show Dear Leader’s insecurities about the future.“If we don’t catch up in the next 10 years, then frankly speaking, our film industry will fall behind. We may become the last,” he says. [Source: Chavala Madlena, The Guardian, October 3, 2016]

And at one point he is heard praising the capitalist work ethic of the enemy: “Frankly speaking, the reason is that in the South, they work hard because they need to make money and feed themselves. It’s the result of blood, sweat and tears. But here, people are simply happy and comfortable … no one whips them onwards.”

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer Magazine: “Still, Shin found Kim to be smart and funny. 'He listened to me because we were from South Korea,' Shin said. 'Even though we criticised some things, he wanted us to be honest. Others would have been killed for speaking so honestly.' While Kim regarded Hollywood fantasies as documentaries, he sometimes let on that he recognised North Korea to be a realm of make-believe. 'When Kim Jong Il let me meet my wife again after five years, there was a big party,' Shin said. 'An all-male band played, then a second, all-female band came out, and the women band members cheered him. Kim Jong Il patted my hand and said, "That's all fake." He knew the people didn't respect him.' Another time after a musical band struck up a tune and jumped up and down shouting, "Long Live the dear comrade leader," Kim said, "Mr. Shin , all that is bogus. It's all just pretense." [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

Kim Jong Il's Political Career

It was by no means assured that Kim Jong In would succeed his father. A number of other possible successors were angling for power. Over a long period beginning with his early adulthood, Kim rose through ranks by flattering his father and eliminating rivals. When Kim Il Sung became an old man, Kim Jong Il assumed greater powers and responsibilities

The younger Kim graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 1964, and after a period of grooming for leadership, he was officially designated successor to his father in 1980. But he did not hold any positions of real power until 1991, when he took control of the armed forces — despite his lack of military experience. Analysts believe he was given the position to counter potential resistance to his eventual succession. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, it was three years before he took over the leadership of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

Kerry Brown wrote in The Guardian: “Kim Jong-il's early career within the party was spent dealing with propaganda. He had a lifelong interest in film, and indeed wrote a treatise, On Cinema, which was to attain the status of canonical truth after his father's death, along with all of his other utterances. In 1973 he became party secretary of the propaganda department, and, in 1974, was designated his father's successor, creating in effect the world's first communist family succession. In 1980 he was elevated to the Politburo, and was granted the title "Dear Leader", as opposed to "Great Leader", which had been granted by his father to himself. In 1991, he was named commander of the DPRK armed forces. The death of his father in 1994 led to his being appointed general secretary of the Workers' party, the ultimate seat of power. His father maintained his position as "eternal president". To this day, the DPRK enjoys a head of state who has been dead since 1994. [Source: Kerry Brown, The Guardian, December 19, 2011]

Kim Jong Il’s Early Political Career

In September 1973, Kim Jong-il assumed the Workers' party's No. 2 post — the secretary for the party's organization, guidance and propaganda affairs. In February 1974, when he was 33, he was elected to the political bureau of the Workers' party's central committee and was thus formally designated North Korea's future leader. On October 10, 1980, Kim Jong-il's status as the country's future leader is made public at the Workers' party congress, where he takes up other top positions. [Source: The Guardian]

After university, Kim Jong Il worked in the central committee of the Korean Workers Party. For along time it seemed that his younger half-brother Kim Pyong Il was the heir apparent, but then suddenly in 1974 Kim Jong Il was elevated to Dear Leader. To solidify his position in the Communist party, "Dear Leader" created "three main revolutionary squads" to instill loyalty among young college graduates. He outmaneuvered his rivals — namely his uncle, stepmother and half-brother — by pointing out their weaknesses and lack of loyalty to his father. He also raised his stature by producing some popular revolutionary films.

When Kim Jong Il was officially anointed as his father’s successor in 1980 he held a position in the Department of Propaganda and Agitation and the Department of Organization and Guidance. As head of the North Korean equivalent of the KGB, he is widely believed to have ordered the terrorist attack on the Korean cabinet in 1983 and the bomb that destroyed an Korean airliner mid air in 1987. Despite all this, Kim avoided the spotlight both inside and outside North Korea. No one knew what he sounded like until his voice was broadcast on the radio for the first time in a 1992 ceremony.

Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “After graduating from Kim Il Sung University in 1964 He went to work in the central committee of the Korean Workers Party, first as a ministerial assistant, swiftly becoming a senior official in the propaganda and agitation department, which controlled much of the party's agenda. “Kim was working his way up the system, and working the system, but also looking over his shoulder. Nothing in his rise to power would be easy or preordained. Dynastic succession was far from inevitable, and even if there was to be a dynasty, it was not clear whether Kim would be its beneficiary. His uncle, Kim Young Ju, was a senior government official. More threatening, however, was Kim's new stepmother: Kim Song Ae, a typist whom Kim Il Sung married in the early 1960's. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

“According to accounts from defectors, as well as from Chinese and Soviet visitors to North Korea, Kim Jong Il did not get along with his stepmother. There are unconfirmed stories that he tore her face out of pictures. Kim Song Ae became a member of the central committee of the Korean Workers Party, giving her a position from which to influence succession. She had children with Kim Il Sung, and one of their sons, Kim Pyong Il, was viewed as a possible heir because of his intelligence and likeness to his father. As he moved to secure his position, Kim needed to remain in the good graces of his father while outmaneuvering his stepmother, half-brother, uncle and anyone else — particularly the country's powerful generals — who wished to lead North Korea.”

While Kim Il Sung was veering away from Communist orthodoxy and establishing a personality cult Kim Jong Il was “working hard to smooth his way to power.” ''I had an impression that he was implementing his plans to get rid of even those very close to Kim Il Sung, including his uncle,''the high level defector Hwang Jang-yop wrote. ''In order to show his father that he was the most loyal, he singled out people near Kim Il Sung. Arguing that these people were not loyal and citing doubts about their ideology or competency, he would relentlessly attack and remove them.''

Kim Jong Il In the Years Before Kim Il Sung’s Death

In December 1991, Kim Jong-il was named supreme commander of the Korean People's Army, the country's 1.2 million-strong army even though he had no military training.. In April 1993, he was named chairman of the National Defense Commission. In July 1994, Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack and Kim Jong-il inherited power. While Kim Il-sung seemed to have been embraced with genuine affection by North Korean people, his son was regarded as a shadowy playboy, “with rumours circulating over the years that he imported Russian and Chinese prostitutes, and lived a life of profligacy and excess.” [Source: The Guardian]

News of Kim Jong Il’s rise was made earlier by elevating the status of his mother. The defector Hwang Jang Yop told a German magazine that Kim Jong Il ran the country in the 20 years before his father died. “When his father was alive, he was always on call for him,” the sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto told The Times. “When there was a call from his father, he immediately went back to his office. I think Kim Il Sung put great pressure on him that may have been too heavy. He told me and small numbers of his aides that he had sat down alone with a gun about a month after his father’s death. His wife became angry with him and told him off.” [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, July 8, 2004]

Kerry Brown wrote in The Guardian: “There is great controversy over the extent of Kim's powers and influence in the latter years of his father's long period in power. To some historians, Kim was no more than his father's puppet, and had no real basis for power in the party, which explains the bitter years from 1994 in which he disappeared from view, waging a long battle for legitimacy within the party and army. To others, he was a negative, malevolent influence over his father from the 1970s onwards, when North Korea began its long and tragic descent into economic deprivation, isolation, starvation and poverty... The withdrawal of most Soviet aid in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet empire, pushed North Korea further down. [Source: Kerry Brown, The Guardian, December 19, 2011]

This is an oversimplification. Kim inherited the very worst legacy of the cold war, in a country torn apart by colonisation and war, a bitter historical residue that lingers to this day. While he may have had influence on his father, the economic template for the country had been set in the 1950s and 1960s, long before he had any say. Its unsustainability only became clear in the very final years of Kim Il-sung's life..

Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Until recently, conventional wisdom held that through the 70's and 80's Kim Jong Il filled his nights with parties and days with terrorism...Whatever his role in terrorism, it has become clear that Kim Jong Il was running North Korea well before his ailing father died. In the years before his death, according to Hwang, ''Kim Il Sung was not the Kim Il Sung of years past. Most of his vitality had disappeared, and he was turning into an old man concerned only with successfully handing over power to Kim Jong Il.'' [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

Kim Jong Il had been running the country for years before Kim Il Sungs’ death “Appointments to any senior post were made by him, whether in the Korean Workers Party (which controls all government institutions) or the Korean People's Army. Decisions on all manner of issues — from the gifts of food and electronic goods that party officials and commoners received on national holidays to the direction and scope of the country's clandestine nuclear-weapons programs — were made by ''the party center,'' as Kim was called, in whispers, in the years before his father's death.

“Many North Korea experts believe Kim Jong Il stayed in the background for the sake of appearances: in a Confucian society, a son must defer, publicly, to his father. If Kim Jong Il moved too rashly, he might have engendered resentment from elderly members of the military whose backing or quiescence he needed. One way he cemented his hold on power was to do as his father did: place close relatives in influential positions.

Kim Jong Il Becomes Head of North Korea

In October, 1997, Kim Jong Il was officially named the general secretary of the Workers Party of Korea, the North Korean government's highest position, after the morning period honoring the death of his father Kim Il Sung had ended. Kim Jong Il was expected to take the position earlier but he extended the mourning for his father from two years to three years. He assumed all the positions held by his father — chairman of the National Defense Commission, commander of the Korean People's Army and head of the ruling Worker's Party — except the presidency. Even today Kim Il Sung remains as North Korea's "eternal president."

According to North Korean lore, Kim Jong Il’s accession event was foretold by the discovery of a 10-centimeter albino sea cucumber by a North Korean fisherman, the sudden appearance of white roses and the unseasonable blossoming of pear and apricot trees in mid autumn. The official North Korean news agency reported "the rare white sea cucumber has come to hail the auspicious event of electing comrade Kim Jong Il as part general secretary...The whole country is vibrating with a new enthusiasm. A wave of jubilation is now sweeping Korea.”

In September 1998, at the first meeting of the national assembly in four years and five months, Kim Jong Il announced his election to the position of chairman of the National Defense Commission and changed the constitution to make the position the defacto head of state of North Korea and then surprised Pyongyang-watchers by essentially abolishing the post of presidency as a gesture of respect to his later father.

Kerry wrote in The Guardian: Kim Jong-il “had to deal with a complex network of interests in the army and party after his father's death, something which, combined with the immediate impact of bad harvests, created the terrible famines that claimed up to a million North Korean lives from 1995 until 1999. The official state information agency issued a statement, after the worst of this period was over in 2001, saying that North Korea had stood "on the crossroads of life and death"

After Kim Jong Il took power after his father's death he was rarely seen. The Politburo and Parliament stopped meeting; Kim Jong Il rarely met foreign dignitaries; he skipped conventions and other important meetings; and conciliated power into a small group of friends. His few public appearances were mainly at military installations. In 1997, he promoted more than 120 officers to the rank of general. At that analysts speculated that Kim Il Jong had solidified his power but experience problems holding on his tenuous position because he lacked the charisma of his father and the support of top military leaders. Shortages could make his position even weaker.

Kim Jong Il's Leadership Qualities

Kim Jong Il was often cast as a mad man but those who knew him and met him said in he was a very clever strategic thinker. The defector Hwang Jang Yop told the Washington Post, "he is intelligent, but he is also arrogant, obsessively conspiratorial and inflexible. He is very wily and manipulative. His only concern is to perpetuate his power. Everything is approached in terms of personal profit and loss." Hwang said that Kim Jong Il was "completely spoiled" by his father "by giving him absolute power to run the day-to-day affairs of the country as a relatively young man." He 'won't listen to anyone else, and to make matters worse, he is often indecisive, changing his mind according to his mood."

According to a 1997 Russian report, "Critics complain that Kim Jong Il does no possess the talent and knowledge necessary for effective leadership and moreover, that is surrounded by 'primitive' people who care only about [their] personal luxury and well-being. Hwang told the Washington Post he doesn't meet foreigners because "he is a very private person and considers ceremonial functions as time-consuming and tedious. Unlike his father, he is not really what you can call a political animal. His philosophy is not to let others know too much about him. He likes to make himself mysterious."

Kim Jong Il’s reputation as a weirdo was cultivated at least in part to further his political and governing aims. One Russian diplomat told Newsweek, "I wouldn't underestimate him. It's very skillful how he raises tensions and wins concessions." When asked if Kim Jong Il is unstable," the diplomat said, "That's what he'd like you to believe because that's the only card he has." If he wasn’t viewed as a possible threat no one would care about him.”

Governing Style of Kim Il Sung

Most of Kim Jong Il’s work was done in offices and backrooms. He made public appearances but rarely said anything and never made a public speech. He often failed to show up for events he was expected to appear at and canceled meetings at the last without giving any reasons. His power was rooted in his control of the military and his “military first” policy ensured that food and other resources went first to he military. Kim never served in the armed forces, In contrast his father was an anti-Japanese guerilla fighter. In 2004, according to the South Korean government, two thirds of Kim’s reported activities were visits to military installations. As his dictatorship wore on, there was more pressure for him to impress and pamper his cronies in a manner in which they were accustomed.

I many way Kim Jong Il ran North Korea as a criminal syndicate, maintaining his hold on power with money earned primarily from arms trading, drug-running, money-counterfeiting and foreign aid. He spent a good amount of the money on his own pleasures — lavish feasts, salaried dancing girls, cellars of fine wines, fleets of Mercedes-Benz sedans to dole out as gifts — and on the People's Army.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “North Korea launched an economic reform program in July 2002. But the country's production remained stagnant, and inflation was the main result. Experts said North Korea's excessive emphasis on military power, as indicated by massive military spending, was the primary cause of the country's economic deterioration. Workers Party of (North) Korea newspaper reiterated its claim in an editorial on Kim's birthday, that "the party's revolutionary achievement, giving priority to military might, is sure of victory and invincibility." Kim's governing style, refusing to liberalize and trying to overcome difficulties by depending on the armed forces, showed no sign of changing.

Sobak Ham

B.R. Myers wrote in the New York Times: Kim Il Sung “is not a Stalinist in any relevant sense, and his party's "juche" ideology has nothing in common with the Soviet-style communism his father espoused during the Korean War. Granted, the red-themed birthday parades may look familiar, but the cult of the two Kims is no socialist personality cult. Stalin and Mao were revered for their perfect grasp of dialectical materialism, an omnipotent science that made them omnipotent too. Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, are revered, like the monarchs they more closely resemble, for their perfect embodiment of national virtues. [Source: B.R. Myers, New York Times, May 19, 2003. Myers is an American professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, whose expertise is North Korean propaganda]

“Chief among these virtues is "sobak ham," a hard-to-translate Korean term that corresponds closely to the word spontaneity in its Marxist-Leninist sense. The Soviets considered the spontaneity of the common people, especially their tendency to violence, to be a dangerous force unless tempered with political consciousness. In North Korea, the people's spontaneity is seen as one of the country's greatest strengths.

“North Korean novels and movies often show the hero casting off the restraints of his book learning in a fit of wild, sometimes suicidal rage against the Japanese or American enemy. This political culture induces officials to tolerate a high level of violence in daily life; North Korean refugees attest that fistfights are the accepted way for men and women to settle even minor differences. While communism was always an internationalist movement, juche (literally, self-reliance) sees the world in ethnic terms. North Korean propaganda makes no distinction between American capitalists and American workers; the entire "Yankee" race is presented as inherently evil, degenerate and ugly. Dictionaries and textbooks suggest that Americans be described with bestial attributes ("snout" for nose, for example).

“The central villain of Han Sorya's novella "Jackals" (1951), the country's most enduring work of fiction, tells of an American child who beats a Korean boy so brutally that he ends up in a hospital — where he is murdered by the American's missionary parents. Since the South Korean government began pursuing its policy of rapprochement, the North's ethnocentric world view has become even more stark; the United States is now presented as being exclusively responsible for all tensions on the peninsula. This propaganda appears to be effective even among North Koreans opposed to the rule of Kim Jong Il. When I visited a resettlement center for refugees near Seoul last year, many of those to whom I was introduced as an American recoiled in terror or glared at me in hatred.”

Kim Jong Il's Government

Kim Jong Il’s control of the military was the key to his power. To make way for Kim Jong Il's relatives and miliary cronies, many senior party members and military officers were eased out of positions of real power. One Pyongyang analyst told Reuter, "No one has lost face, and the transfer has been done as skillfully as anyone could in a country like North Korea.

Philip Gourevitch wrote in The Observer: “Indeed, despite the heavy doses of Stalinist and Maoist jargon in its economic policies and party doctrine, to speak of North Korea under the Kim dynasty simply as a Communist state is insufficient. In recent decades, references to Marxism and Leninism have steadily faded from its propaganda. Marx and Lenin were not Korean, and North Korea's ruling ideology, Juche - which means self-reliance - is predicated on being independent from the claims or destinies of other revolutions.” [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Kim's regime is best understood as an imperial court, clouded in intrigue, not unlike the royal households that ruled Japan, China and, throughout most of its existence, Korea itself. Until the 20th century, Korea was led by feudal kings, notably the Yi dynasty. By creating a personal and uncaring regime, Kim Il Sung wasn't stealing a page from only Stalin; he was also stealing it from Korean history, a fact that helps explain its durability. ''North Korea is a semifeudal society that is still based on traditional Korean values,'' says Alexandre Mansourov, a scholar at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies who was a Soviet diplomat based in Pyongyang in the 1980's. ''There are traces of modernity, but if you look at the structure of thinking, it is very traditional, in a medieval sense.'' [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

Kim Jong Il’s Inner Circle

The U.S. military has suggested the entire country of North Korea was run under Kim Jong Il by around a dozen people: a handful of relatives and a group of "Young Turk" military officers. The inner circle is reminiscent of an imperial court found in feudal China or Korea. The military was controlled by a "Gang of Five' of military leaders in their fifties and around the same age as Kim Jong Il. Some key figures were reportedly "hidden" in low profile positions. Kang-sok-ju, the man who negotiated the nuclear with the United States, for example ran the North Korea's foreign affairs from the position of First Vice Foreign Minister.

Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at Sejong Institute in South Korea, told Associated Press that Kim's circle of advisers likely includes military and ruling Workers' Party officials and top officials at the North's five top government organs — the National Defense Commission, the Korean Workers' Party Central Committee, the Korean Workers' Party Central Military Commission, the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly and the Cabinet. [Source: Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, September 17, 2008]

The Dear Leaders sister Kim Kyoung Hui, sometimes called the “First Lady,” was director of the Economic Policy Inspection Department. Her husband, the Dear Leader's brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, was at least for while was reportedly Kim Jong Il's most trusted advisor. His brother controlled the military units that protected Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il cousin, Kim Jong-u — the son of Kim Il Sung's sister — was in charge of North Korea's important ministry of economic affairs.

Jang Song-thaek was a powerful figure in both the administration of Kim Jong Il and that of his son and leader Kim Jong-un. A technocrat trained in the former Soviet Union, Jang married Kim Jong Il’s younger sister in 1972 and then slowly rose through the ranks of the North's ruling Workers' Party. He was seen as an economic reformer and was considered to be among Kim’s closest aides until he fell from grace and was ousted in 2004 because, it is believed, he had built up so much power he threatened Kim Jong Il’s position.

Jang was rehabilitated in 2006 was reinstated in Kim Jong Il’s inner circl with a powerful ministry position in 2007 and appointed to the all-powerful National Defense Commission in April 2009. "In a system like North Korea, there is nobody else to trust but one's own flesh and blood," Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, told Associated Press. "Jang is expected to play a decisive role in strengthening Kim's rule and as a guardian of Kim's successor." After Kim Jong Il died, he was also viewed as a threat by Kim Jong-un, who ended up ordering Jang to be blown to smithereens with an anti-aircarft gun. Kim Jong-un reportedly bragged to U.S. President Donald Trump that he kept Jang’s head.

Kim Jong Il and His Staff and Their Gifts

Kim Jong Il reportedly consulted with his key advisors on major issues. A South Korea commentator told the Los Angeles Times, “Kim and those around him are rational” but “that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re reasonable.”

Kim Jong Il's most trusted followers, the Loyal Warriors, drove in vehicles with license plates that begin with 2-16, a reference to his February 16th birthday. Those held in highest esteem were given Mercedes Benzes with Dear Leaders's birthday license plates. In 1998, Kim Jong Il reportedly ordered 200 Class S Mercedes at US$100,000 a piece. The US$20 million price tag was equal to a fifth of the aid promised by the United Nations that year.

Kim Jong Il surrounded himself with sycophants. He gave out his used gray or blue uniforms as gifts to friends and aids as well as Rolex watches with his name engraved on the casing to influence subordinates and rivals. Low level party loyalists received gift baskets with canned food, ginseng, liquor and cookies on Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Fujimoto, the sushi chef, said, “Kim Jong Il gave me so much. He gave me a new home, let me serve his family and brought me together with my North Korean wife. But I know he will never forgive me for my betrayal. Sometimes I do wish I could go back, but that would be rather complicated now.”

Kim Jong-il’s Public Appearances

Kim Jong Il often skipped major events and when he did appear he generally didn’t say anything. In 1998, he appeared a rally for the 50th anniversary of North Korea's nation but did not give a speech. One of his general announced though the North Korean army "will devotedly defend he headquarters of Kim Jong Il in the spirit of human bombs and suicide bombing." Kim seemed to be more comfortable visiting factories and military facilities.

On his appearances in 2007, Hankyoreh reported: “During the first half of this year, Kim Jong-il made less than half as many public appearances as he did during the same period last year. Analysis of North Korean media reports, released on July 3 by South Korean news agency Yonhap, indicate that as of the end of June of this year, Kim made a total of 29 appearances, 45 percent of the 64 public appearances he made last year. He has been seen far less frequently than his 39 appearances in 2005, 44 appearances in 2004 and 51 appearances in 2003. [Source: Hankyoreh, July 5, 2007]

The main cause of the decline in the number public appearances made by the reclusive leader was a decrease in the number of military activities that were made public. This year, public appearances made on military-related business account for 45 percent of Kim’s aggregate appearances; during the first half of 2006 he had 45 public engagements related to the military. Publicized dates with the military have usually accounted for 60 to 70 percent of Kim’s activities, as reported by North Korea’s state media outlets.

“Kim appeared in the media just twice in May of this year, leading some observers to suspect he had health problems. Kim appeared in public twice in February as well, and six times each in March, April and June. A Japanese weekly, Shukan Gendai, reported in June that Kim had had an operation in May, after having had a heart attack. This was followed by a report from Britian’s Daily Telegraph that he was not in good shape and that he had difficulty walking more than 30 yards without resting. These reports came after a team of German doctors had flown to Pyonyang for eight days in May. But a spokesman for the German team reportedly said that they had only treated three laborers, a nurse and a scientist. Some North Korea experts reportedly said that he had the flu and problems with his knee.

“A total of 40 officials accompanied Kim on public outings during the first half of 2007, with Workers’ Party central committee secretary Kim Ki Nam appearing with Kim more than anyone else in 11 appearances together. Chang Song-taek, Kim’s brother-in-law and someone who has played an important role in Pyongyang’s government, has not been seen in public this year at all, after having appeared with Kim 8 times in 2006.”

Kim Jong Il Inspection of a KPA Tank Unit and Cosmetic Factory

During a typical visit to a newly built power plant, North Korean media said Kim Jong Il "warmly encouraged the workers (who have been) working miracles and innovations every day from the outset of the new year in hearty response to the call of the WPK". On a visit to cosmetics and machine factories in Sinuiju, North Korea, the BBC reported: State news agency KCNA said Mr Kim had offered workers praise and guidance at the cosmetics and machine factories. Mr Kim praised the "high quality" of the toilet soap, toothpaste, cream and lotion produced at the cosmetics factory, and the "persevering and tireless efforts" of the workers, KCNA reported.” Photos showed “him standing outside a building at the cosmetics factory, while others showed him near an orange bulldozer at the engineering plant. [Source: BBC, November 25, 2008]

On a visit by Kim Jong Il to a Sub-Unit of KPA Tank Division, KNCA, the North Korean news service, reported: General Secretary Kim Jong Il inspected a sub-unit of the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the KPA honored with the title of O Jung Hup-led Seventh Regiment. He congratulated the service personnel for having performed laudable feats after commencing the fulfilment of their combat duties for this year with fresh confidence and hope. After acquainting himself with the unit's performance of duty, he went round an education room, a bedroom, a mess hall, a non-staple food store, a wash-cum-bath house and entertainment and educational and supply service facilities to pay deep attention to their service and living. [Source: KCNA, January 5, 2010]

“He showed profound loving care for them, learning about every aspect of their life ranging from the use of entertainment and educational means and the bedroom's temperature to the supply of water to the wash-cum-bath house and varieties of non-staple food. Noting that it is an important work for boosting their combat capability to provide the soldiers with good conditions for their living, he underlined the need for the commanding officers to pay deep attention to the supply service at all times.

“Then he mounted the forward observation post to watch tanks in training. After seeing the training of brave tank men, he expressed great satisfaction over the fact that all tank men have grown to be a-match-for-a hundred fighters fully prepared politically and ideologically and in military technique to beat back any formidable enemy's invasion at one blow. He set forth important tasks which would serve as guidelines for boosting the unit's combat capability in every way.”

Kim Ok: North Korea’s First Lady Ruling Behind the Scenes?

After the death of Ko Yong-hui, Kim Jong Il’s “wife” and Kim Jong-un’s mother, in 2004, Kim Jong Il lived with Kim Ok, who had been his personal secretary since the 1980s and took over the responsibilities of the "First Lady." The Guardian reported: “Ms Kim, 42, "virtually acts as North Korea's first lady", and frequently accompanied the communist leader on his visits to military bases and meetings with foreign dignitaries, Yonhap said. She also travelled with him on a secretive trip to China in January, when she was received by officials as Mr Kim's wife, the report said. Ms Kim also met the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, it said. "She is a cute woman rather than a beauty like the leader's previous wives or live-in women," another source said. “Little is known about Ms Kim, except that she studied piano at the North's elite Pyongyang University of Music and Dance. It is not known whether she has any children by the North Korean leader, who is known to have three sons - one from his second wife, two from his third. [Source: The Guardian, July 24, 2006]

As Kim Jong Il became sicker in the last years of his life and term as North Korea’s leader, especially after he had a stroke in 2008, there was some speculation that maybe Kim Ok was playing a major role behind the scenes. Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: South Korean officials are keeping a close eye on Kim Ok amid some intelligence reports that she's not only nursing the ailing leader but also is signing official documents on his behalf. Experts believe the communist leader is retaining a firm grip on power, running the nation from his bed with the help of military and communist party chiefs in line with the nation's "songun," or military first, policy. But they are not discounting the role of the woman who is seen by some as the de-facto first lady. "She is the closest person personally to Kim Jong Il," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "In some ways, she's the one guarding the bedroom or hospital door. She would be in a position to convey his preferences." [Source: Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, September 17, 2008]

“Kim, 66, reportedly suffered a stroke last month and is recuperating following emergency brain surgery — though North Korean officials deny the communist leader, who was last seen in public more than a month ago, is ill And Kim Ok may be poised to fill any void. Experts speculate the North Korean leader's dependence on her during his illness may further bolster her political clout. "If Kim Jong Il can't communicate with others, her role will be larger," said Kang Jung-mo, a North Korea expert at Kyung Hee University.

One South Korean intelligence officer said agents are keeping a close eye on traffic about Kim Ok, including indications she is signing some official documents on his behalf. He spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with department policy. South Korea's Unification Ministry said it has some intelligence on Kim Ok but cannot confirm reports on her growing influence. The South's National Intelligence Service also said it could not confirm the reports.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, The Telegraph, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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