Skip to main content

North Korea’s Kim Family

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Kim Il-sung is known in North Korea as “The Great Sun of Life” and “The Ever-Victorious Generalissimo.” A propaganda machine has created myths about Kim Il-sung who is worshiped as a god-like person. Although perhaps it's more accurate to say that the population is terrified of the consequences of not treating Kim Il-sung as a deity.

In 1997, the country’s calendar was changed so that time began in 1912 when Kim Il-sung is said to have come to Earth from Heaven.

The first two Kims in heroic poses.

The first two Kims in heroic poses.

The Fighting Patriarch

Kim Il-sung is claimed to have led a guerrilla force under the Communist Party banner against the Japanese occupation of Korea, which began in 1910. At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Soviet Union marched into North Korea and set up a communist regime. Kim Il-sung was picked by the Soviets to lead what is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948.

Kim Il-sung portrayed as the benevolent father of his people. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin favoured similar depictions.

Kim Il-sung portrayed as the benevolent father of his people. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin favoured similar depictions.

A cult was built up around him and extravagant claims made about his achievements. It has become difficult to know what is true and what is carefully crafted fiction about his life. For example, the story that he was prominent in the fight against Japanese occupation. Here’s an Australian Broadcasting Corporationreport: “Bradley Martin, the author of a biography of the Kims, said he believed Kim Il-sung first did fight against the Japanese in Manchuria—but was not involved in liberating North Korea.”

Brian Myers is an expert on North Korea. He says “Kim Il-sung was not the big guerrilla hero, the big anti-Japanese hero he made himself out to be.”

But, when you have total control of all media as the Kims have, the people of the country only hear one narrative. No outside media is allowed in and the internet is heavily censored. North Koreans have no way of knowing that what they are told is mostly lies, and they are told these from the time they start kindergarten.

Adoration of the "Great Leader"

Juche Philosophy

Kim Il-sung developed his own brand of communism in the mid-1950s; he called it Juche (a rough pronunciation is “joo-chey”). It is usually described as “self-reliance” and is the official ideology of North Korea.

When Kim Il-sung died in 1994 he was succeeded as the country’s dictator by his son Kim Jong-il, and he changed Juche. He turned it into a form of religion based on making his father a god-like figure and the “eternal head of state.”

According to the BBC, “There are an estimated 34,000 statues of Kim Il-sung in North Korea.” Time magazine reports that “All citizens are required to wear a pin with his image, and keep his portrait in their homes fastidiously clean (on pain of excommunication and banishment.)”

Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il.

The New World Encyclopedia writes that Juche now “describes North Korea as a chosen nation, and North Koreans as a chosen people who have a mission to liberate the world.”

Whatever its initial aims might have been, Kim Jong-il turned Juche into a system of oppression.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

By turning Kim Il-sung into a god, Kim Jong-il created for himself the character of the son of god. So, the story is told that Kim Jong-il’s birth was “foretold by a swallow, and attended by miraculous signs, including a double rainbow and a brilliant star” (The Economist, April 2013). Just as the father was known as the “Great Leader,” the propaganda machine created the title “Fearless Leader” for the son. This was later changed to “Dear Leader.”

Children in school are taught about the wonderful achievements of Kim Jong-il. Here are some of the claims:

  • He invented the hamburger and called it “double bread with meat;”
  • He never used a toilet because his bodily functions were so perfect he didn’t need to eliminate waste;
  • He is so loved around the world that other countries celebrate his birthday;
  • He first picked up a golf club in 1994 and shot a 38-under par round on the country’s only course that included 11 holes in one; and,
  • He could control the weather by his moods.
Two dictators meet. Kim Jong-il with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Two dictators meet. Kim Jong-il with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Disastrous Leadership of Kims

Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and Atlanticmagazine noted he “left his country much as he found it—poor and desperately hungry.”

He mismanaged the economy so badly that an agricultural decline turned into a full-blown famine in which three million people died. That kind of catastrophe would end a leader’s political career anywhere else in the world, but this is North Korea. None of the rules that apply elsewhere have any effect under the Kim family.

If the people couldn't have food they could have an unending diet of propaganda about how wonderful the Kims are.

They had no way of knowing that people in many other countries do not endure starvation, slave labour, and brutal repression. At the same time, the people were constantly told that the Western world, and particularly America, was evil to its core.

Should any citizen criticize Kim he kept a large number of prison camps. If life for regular people was bad it was unimaginably awful in the prisons; although we can get a hint of conditions from Lim Hye-jin. She is a former guard who escaped to South Korea. The Independent says she “described watching interned political dissenters set on fire, beheaded, and shot dead en masse in collective punishment . . . ”

The writer Christopher Hitchens visited North Korea and wrote (Slate, February 2010) that Kim Jong-il had “actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others . . . ”

While the average North Korean was struggling to get enough food, the Dear Leader had a lavish lifestyle that included a wine cellar with 10,000 bottles in it. He had a DVD collection numbering 20,000 titles; his favourites were the James Bond and Rambo series. He would throw sumptuous banquets that included such delicacies as snake, hippopotamus, and spiders. The meals would end with the finest liquors; the Dear Leader’s annual spending on cognac “was about 500 times the average North Korean’s annual income” (The Independent). He also had a “Joy Division” of young women to dance attention upon him.

However, even a living god can’t cheat death it seems and Kim Jong-il was felled by a heart attack at the age of 69.

The Latest Kim

Kim Jong-il wanted to keep the ownership of the country and its people in the hands of the family, so he groomed his son Kim Jong-un to succeed him. He was 27 at the time he took over in 2011.

According to North Korea's state media, Kim Jong-un is just as amazing as his father. He is said to be a talented composer of music as well as an artist. In his youth he was a gifted sailor, winning races at the age of nine, and he learned to drive when he was only three. State media tells North Koreans that their young leader is celebrated around the world for his accomplishments. He has the unofficial title of “Outstanding Leader.”

Kim Jong-un enjoys a visit to Berlin.

Kim Jong-un enjoys a visit to Berlin.

Just like his father, the latest Kim tyrant has expensive tastes. There are palaces, yachts, and airplanes all of the luxury type. According to The Telegraph, other purchases include “bottles of high-end alcohol costing the state $30 million (£20 million), electronic goods costing $37 million, and luxury watches costing a further $8.2 million.”

U.S. News and World Reports notes that “Kim Jong-un may be worth as much as $5 billion, according to the South Korean news organization Chosun Ilbo. The money comes from state-run enterprises as well as sales of narcotics, counterfeiting, and other types of criminality. It’s believed to be held in hundreds of bank accounts—outside of North Korea.”

Meanwhile, very few North Koreans have an annual income higher than $1,000. Less than three percent of the country’s roads are paved. Because of poor nutrition, North Koreans are, on average, three to eight centimetres shorter than South Koreans. Average life expectancy has fallen by five years since the 1980s.

The Korea Institute for National Unification is a research group based in Seoul, South Korea. It has reported that in North Korea “The standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels of deprivation in which the right to food security, health and other minimum needs for human survival are denied.”

Brutal Rule

In the tradition of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un is ruthless. He heads what The Economist calls a “blood-drenched dictatorship.” If Mr. Kim’s secret police believe someone is disloyal they will be executed or jailed and their children put in prison. Kim has even ordered the murder of some of his relatives.

In February 2014 a United Nations panel of inquiry issued a 400-page report on North Korea’s human rights record. It wasn’t pretty and described a long list of “unspeakable atrocities.”

Over the course of the Kim family rule “Hundreds of thousands” of detainees lost their lives while in prison. One survivor said “We saw so many people die we became so used to it. We became so used to it that we didn’t feel anything.”

The report calls for those responsible for the barbarity, including probably Kim Jong-un, to be brought before the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Experts say much of North Korea's military equipment is obsolete.

Experts say much of North Korea's military equipment is obsolete.

Kim Jong-un’s Mental State

Madman, lunatic, and “just nuts” are a few of the names attached to Kim Jong-un. But, these are not professional diagnoses; that can only be done in face-to-face examinations by psychiatrists. This, of course, does not stop professionals from offering their opinions on the mental health of the “Outstanding Leader.” One of these is Dr. Ian Robertson, chair of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin.

In an article in Psychology Today he suggests Kim’s apparently irrational behaviour is, in fact, quite rational. “The survival of his dictatorship depends on maintaining a sense of threat from the outside world and empowering his impoverished people with images of military might and nuclear vengeance against his country’s ‘cruel persecutors.’ ”

He’s just a new gang leader, says Dr. Robertson. If he shows the slightest sign of weakness others will pounce on him and depose him. “Like any new boss of a gang built on violence and intimidation, he has to keep his gang in power and build its wealth and status, if for no other reason than to save his own skin.”

Dr. Robertson adds that from what he can observe from a distance, Kim Jong-un “shows no signs of suffering from any diagnosable mental disorder.” His behaviour would have appeared quite normal among medieval monarchs.

Bonus Factoids

  • North Koreans don’t observe Christmas; instead they celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-il’s mother Kim Jong-suk.
  • North Korea holds presidential elections every five years but there is only one name on the ballots.

The Rungrado Stadium (above) in Pyongyang is the biggest in the world and can seat 150,000. It is sometimes used for pageants extolling the magnificence of the Kim family. Here, 30,000 students hold coloured cards to display the country's flag.

Sources (selected)

  • “The Despotic Dynasty.” Charlie Campbell, Time, February 24, 2017.
  • “The Kims of North Korea: How Myth and Propaganda Sustain a Family Dynasty.” Annabelle Quince, ABC, November 1, 2016.
  • “Juche.” New World Encyclopedia, May 24, 2014.
  • “50 Fascinating Facts: Kim Jong-il and North Korea.” The Telegraph, December 19, 2011.
  • “How to Deal With the World’s Most Dangerous Regime.” The Economist, April 22, 2017.
  • “Person of Interest: Sane Man, Insane Bind.” Dr. Ian Robertson, Psychology Today, July 2, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor

Related Articles