Kim Jong-il (born: Yuri Irsenovich Kim; 16 February 1941/2 – 17 December 2011) was the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). He was the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party since 1948, Chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea, and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, the fourth-largest standing army in the world. He is widely regarded to have been one of the most infamous and brutal dictators of all time.
Details surrounding Kim Jong-il’s birth vary according to source. Soviet records show that he was born in the village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk, in 1941, where his father, Kim Il-sung, commanded the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade, made up of Chinese and Korean exiles. Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk, was Kim Il-sung’s first wife.
Kim Jong-il’s official biography states that he was born in a secret military camp on Baekdu Mountain in Japanese Korea on 16 February 1942. Official biographers claim that his birth at Baekdu Mountain was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens.
In 1945, Kim was three or four years old (depending on his birth year) when World War II ended and Korea regained independence from Japan. His father returned to Pyongyang that September, and in late November Kim returned to Korea via a Soviet ship, landing at Sonbong (선봉군, also Unggi). The family moved into a former Japanese officer’s mansion in Pyongyang, with a garden and pool. Kim Jong-il’s brother, “Shura” Kim (the first Kim Pyong-il, but known by his Russian nickname), drowned there in 1948. Unconfirmed reports suggest that five-year-old Kim Jong-il might have caused the accident. In 1949, his mother died in childbirth. Unconfirmed reports suggest that his mother might have been shot and left to bleed to death.
According to his official biography, Kim completed the course of general education between September 1950 and August 1960. He attended Primary School No. 4 and Middle School No. 1 (Namsan Higher Middle School) in Pyongyang. This is contested by foreign academics, who believe he is more likely to have received his early education in the People’s Republic of China as a precaution to ensure his safety during the Korean War.
Throughout his schooling, Kim was involved in politics. He was active in the Children’s Union and the Democratic Youth League (DYL), taking part in study groups of Marxist political theory and other literature. In September 1957 he became vice-chairman of his middle school’s DYL branch. He pursued a programme of anti-factionalism and attempted to encourage greater ideological education among his classmates.
The elder Kim had meanwhile remarried and had another son, Kim Pyong-il (named after Kim Jong-il’s drowned brother). Since 1988, Kim Pyong-il has served in a series of North Korean embassies in Europe and is currently the North Korean ambassador to Poland. Foreign commentators suspect that Kim Pyong-il was sent to these distant posts by his father in order to avoid a power struggle between his two sons.
According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report, North Korean government under Kim was “among the world’s most repressive governments”, having up to 200,000 political prisoners and no freedom of the press or religion, political opposition or equal education and health care: “Virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life is controlled by the government.”
In April 2009, North Korea’s constitution was amended to refer to him implicitly as the “supreme leader”. He was also referred to as the “Dear Leader”, “our Father”, “the General” and “Generalissimo”. His son Kim Jong-un was promoted to a senior position in the ruling Workers’ Party and is his successor. In 2010, he was ranked 31st in Forbes Magazine’s List of The World’s Most Powerful People. The North Korean government announced his death on 19 December 2011.
Kim’s three sons and his son-in-law, along with O Kuk-ryol, an army general, have been noted as possible successors, but the North Korean government has been wholly silent on this matter. Kim Yong Hyun, a political expert at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Seoul‘s Dongguk University, has said, “Even the North Korean establishment would not advocate a continuation of the family dynasty at this point.” Kim’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam was earlier believed to be the designated heir but he appears to have fallen out of favor after being arrested at Narita International Airport near Tokyo in 2001 while traveling on a forged passport.
On 2 June 2009, it was reported that Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was to be North Korea’s next leader. Like his father and grandfather, he has also been given an official sobriquet, The Brilliant Comrade. Prior to his death, it had been reported that Kim Jong Il was expected to officially designate the son as his successor in 2012. However, there are reports that if leadership passes to one of the sons, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Chang Sung-taek, could attempt to take power from him.