Kim Jong-un became the supreme leader of North Korea in 2011, succeeding his father Kim Jong-il.
Who Is Kim Jong-un?
Much of the early life of Kim Jong-un is unknown to Western media. Presumably born in North Korea, Kim is the son of Ko Young-hee, an opera singer, and Kim Jong-il, the dictatorial leader of the country until his death in 2011. Although Kim Jong-un implemented some economic and agricultural reforms, human rights violations and brutal suppression of opposition continue to be reported under his rule. He also continued the country’s nuclear testing and development of missile technology in the face of international condemnation, though he announced intentions to be more cooperative in that area via historic meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
The birthdate and early childhood of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is shrouded in mystery. It is known that he is the third and youngest son of Korean military leader Kim Jong-il (also written Jong Il), who, under the Communist Worker’s Party, had ruled North Korea since 1994; and the grandson of Kim Il-sung, his father’s predecessor.
Kim Jong-un’s mother was opera singer Ko Young-hee, who had two other children and is thought to have campaigned for Kim Jong-un to be his father’s successor before her death in 2004. Kim Jong-il reportedly took a liking to Kim Jong-un, noting that he saw in the youth a temperament similar to himself. It is also thought that Kim Jong-un may have been educated abroad in Switzerland before attending the Kim Il-sung Military University (named after his grandfather) in the capital of Pyongyang in the mid-2000s.
Kim Jong-il began to prepare Kim Jong-un for succession to leadership in 2010. Upon his father’s death in December 2011, Kim Jong-un assumed power. He was believed to be in his late 20s at the time.
Suppression of Opposition
After Kim assumed supreme leadership of North Korea, he reportedly executed or removed many senior officials that he had inherited from his father’s regime. Among those purged was his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek (also known as Chang Sŏng-t’aek), who is believed to have played an important role during Kim Kim Jong-il’s rule and had been considered one of Kim Jong-un’s top advisers.
In December 2013, Jang was reportedly arrested and executed for being a traitor and plotting to overthrow the government. It is also believed that members of Jang’s family were executed as part of the purge.
In February 2017, Kim’s older half-brother Kim Jong-nam died in Malaysia. Although many details remained unclear, it was believed he was poisoned at Kuala Lumpur airport, and multiple suspects were arrested. Kim Jong-nam had been living in exile for many years, during which time he served as a vocal critic of his half-brother’s regime.
Under Kim Jong-un’s authority, North Korea continued its weapons-testing programs. Though agreeing in February 2012 to halt nuclear testing and to a cessation on long-range missile launching, in April 2012 the country launched a satellite that failed shortly after takeoff. Then, in December of the same year, the government launched a long-range rocket that put a satellite in orbit. The U.S. government believed that these launches were meant to cover up work and testing on ballistic missile technology.
In February 2013, North Korea held its third underground nuclear test. The act was roundly condemned by the international community, including the United States, Russia, Japan and China. In the face of further sanctions, analysts stated that Kim’s continued focus on armament while calling for U.S. peace talks was a strategy of positioning North Korea as a formidable entity and cementing his standing as a regional leader.
By September 2016, the country reportedly conducted its fifth underground nuclear test, despite a history of sanctions imposed by the U.S. Other countries staunchly denounced the move and called for North Korea’s denuclearization, with South Korean president Park Geun-hye particularly concerned about the security implications of the continued weapons testing and Kim’s mental state.
In February 2017, North Korea launched what its state media described as a medium long-range ballistic missile, with Kim said to be present at the site to supervise. The test sparked more outrage from the international community and calls for an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting.
Kim notably butted heads with Donald Trump after the latter’s election to the U.S. presidency in November 2016. The two exchanged numerous threats of warfare, and even took to personally insulting the other. In November 2017, during a stop on a tour of Asia, President Trump took a softer stance, urging North Korea to “come to the table” to discuss disarmament.
After the conclusion of Trump’s tour, North Korean officials said the regime would continue to expand its nuclear capabilities as long as South Korea and the U.S engaged in joint military exercises. Kim punctuated that statement by calling Trump a “depraved and stupid guy,” and the U.S. president responded on November 20 by officially designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In late November, North Korea crossed another threshold with the launch of its Hwasong-15 missile, which reached a height of approximately 2,800 miles above ground, before splashing down off the coast of Japan. Afterward, Kim declared that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
Relations With South Korea and 2018 Olympics
Kim struck a measured tone during his New Year’s Day speech to open 2018, in which he stressed the need to “lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula” and suggested he would send a delegation to compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Nevertheless, he made sure to issue one of his usual threats to his overseas antagonists, warning the U.S. that “the button for nuclear weapons is on my table.”
His overtures, viewed by some analysts as an attempt to drive a wedge between U.S.-South Korea relations, were welcomed by his neighbors: “We have always stated our willingness to talk with North Korea any time and anywhere if that would help restore inter-Korean relations and lead to peace on the Korean peninsula,” said a spokesman for South Korean President Moon.
On January 9, 2018, representatives from North and South Korea met at the Panmunjom truce village, on the border between the two countries, for their first discussions in more than two years. The talks led to an arrangement in which North Korea would participate in the following month’s Winter Olympics.
“The North said that they will send a high-level delegation, including Olympic committee representatives, athletes, a cheering squad, an art performance group, spectators, taekwondo demonstrators and press,” reported South Korean vice minister of unification Chun Hae-sung.
Along with its delegation, North Korea made its mark on the Games with the high-profile appearance of Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s younger sister and the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit South Korea. She offered hope for peace during a dinner with President Moon, saying, “Here’s to hoping that we could see the pleasant people (of the South) again in Pyeongchang and bring closer the future where we are one again.”
Shortly after the conclusion of the Olympics, two of President Moon’s top aides traveled to Pyongyang for the first visit by South Korean officials since Kim took power in 2011. Although few details about the discussions emerged, the meeting did produce plans for a summit between the North and South Korean leaders at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two countries.
Meeting with Vladimir Putin
In late April 2019, Kim traveled by armored train to Vladivostok, Russia, to visit President Vladimir Putin. The train ride mirrored the one taken by his father, who met Putin in the same Russian city in 2002.
The meeting seemed designed to show solidarity between the two leaders at a time when North Korean discussions with the United States had stalled. No official agreements came out of the engagement with Putin, though Kim described their talks as “very meaningful.”
Public Persona and Wife
In the summer of 2012, it was revealed that Kim had taken a wife, Ri Sol-ju. While the couple’s exact wedding date is unknown, one source reported it as 2009. In the months after the marriage was uncovered, the country’s first lady frequently appeared in the media—a striking departure from previous protocols. It has also been speculated that the couple has a child.
Health, Succession & Sister
The topic of Kim’s whereabouts and personal well-being became a source of intrigue after he missed the annual celebration of his grandfather’s birthday — known as the Day of the Sun — on April 15, 2020. As his public absence stretched to weeks, various accounts described the leader as recovering from heart surgery or possibly incapacitated, sparking additional speculation as to who would take control of the country in the event of his passing.
Name: Kim Jong-un
Birth City: (presumably North Korea)
Best Known For: Kim Jong-un became the supreme leader of North Korea in 2011, succeeding his father Kim Jong-il.
War and Militaries
Kim Il-sung Military University
North Korean (Korea, North)
Born: January 8, 1984 (age 39 years), Wonsan, North Korea
Spouse: Ri Sol-ju (m. 2009)
Children: Kim Ju-ae
Nominations: NME Award for Villain of the Year
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