Biography of Kim Jong-un: North Korean Dictator

Kim Jong-un
This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 2, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) attending a photo session with participants of the fourth conference of active secretaries of primary organizations of the youth league of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in Pyongyang.

 AFP Contributor /Getty Images

Kim Jong-un (reportedly born January 8, 1984) is a North Korean politician who in 2011 became the third Supreme Leader of North Korea upon the death of his father and second leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. In his capacity as Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un is also Supreme Commander of the North Korean military and Chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (KWP). While he has been credited with some positive reforms, Kim continues to be accused of human rights violations and brutal suppression of political opposition. He has also expanded North Korea’s nuclear missile program despite international objections. 

Fast Facts: Kim Jung-un

  • Full Name: Kim Jung-un
  • Known For: Dictatorial reign as Supreme Leader of North Korea 
  • Born: January 8, 1984, in North Korea
  • Parents: Kim Jong-il and Ko Young-hui
  • Siblings: Kim Jong-chul (brother), Kim Yo-jong (sister)
  • Education: Kim Il-sung University and Kim Il-sung Military University
  • Key Accomplishments:
  • Became just the third leader of North Korea in 2011
  • Brought reform to North Korea’s economy and social culture
  • Expanded North Korea’s nuclear missile development program 
  • Spouse: Ri Sol-ju
  • Known Children: Kim Ju-ae (daughter, born in 2010)

Early Life and Education

Like other North Korean government figures, many details of Kim Jong-un’s early life are shrouded in secrecy and must be based on statements from the state-controlled North Korean media or generally-accepted knowledge. 

According to the US Treasury Department, Kim Jong-un was born in North Korea on January 8, 1984, to Kim Jong-il, the second leader of the country until his death in 2011, and Ko Young-hui, an opera singer. He is also the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea from 1948 to 1994. 

Kim Jong-un is believed to have two siblings, including his older brother Kim Jong-chul born in 1981, and his younger sister and Director of the Workers’ Party Department of Propaganda and Agitation, Kim Yo-jong, born in 1987. He also had an older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. All of the children reportedly spent their childhoods living with their mother in Switzerland.

Kim Jong-un as a child
South Korean protesters shout slogans beside pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (L) and a boy (R), believed to be the leader's third son Jong-un, during a rally denouncing North Korea's missile threat, in Seoul on February 19, 2009.  UNG YEON-JE / Getty Images

Details of Kim Jong-un’s early education are varied and disputed. However, it is believed that from 1993 to 2000, he attended various preparatory schools in Switzerland, registering under false names and identities for security purposes. Most sources suggest that from 2002 to 2007, Jong-un attended Kim Il-sung University and Kim Il-sung Military University in Pyongyang. He reportedly earned a degree in physics from Kim Il-sung University and was commissioned as an army officer at the military school.

Ascension to Power

It had long been assumed that Kim Jong-un’s eldest half-brother, Kim Jong-nam would succeed Kim Jong-il. However, Kim Jong-nam reportedly lost his father’s trust in 2001 when he tried to enter Japan on a fake passport. 

By 2009, hints emerged that Kim Jong-il had chosen Kim Jong-un as the “Great Successor” to follow him as Supreme Leader. In April 2009, Kim was named chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and was being referred to as “Brilliant Comrade.” By September 2010, Kim Jong-un had been named head of the State Security Department and four-star general of the Army. During 2011, it became clear that Kim Jong-un would succeed his father. 

South Korean newspapers Kim Jong-un
South Korean newspapers carry front-page stories of Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, in Seoul on October 1, 2010. Secretive North Korea finally put its heir apparent on show to the world releasing a photograph of a serious-faced Kim Jong-Un seated close to his ailing father Kim Jong-Il.  JUNG YEON-JE / Getty Images

Soon after Kim Jong-il died on December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-Un was declared Supreme Leader, then an unofficial title that publicly established his status as head of both the North Korean government and military. Not yet 30 years of age, he had become the third leader of his country and commander of the world’s fourth largest army.

Domestic and Foreign Policy 

Upon taking power, Kim Jong-un announced his strategy for the future of North Korea, emphasizing a major revamping of its economy along with the expansion of its military capabilities. The central committee of the KWP endorsed the plan in 2013.

Economic Reforms

Kim Jong-un’s so-called “May 30th measures,” is a comprehensive set of economic reforms that, in part, gives businesses “certain rights to engage in business activities” without prior government approval as long as those activities benefit the “socialist distribution system” and help improve the nation’s standard of living. These reforms have also been credited with a rapid increase in agricultural production, greater availability of domestically produced consumer goods, and greater revenue from international trade.

Under Kim’s reforms, the capital city of Pyongyang has seen a construction boom focused on modern office space and housing rather than monuments to the past. Unheard of during the rule of his father or grandfather, Kim Jong-un’s government has allowed and encouraged the construction of amusement and aquatic parks, skating rinks, and ski resorts. 

Nuclear Weapons Policy

Kim Jong-un continued and expanded North Korea’s highly-criticized nuclear weapons programs started under his father, Kim Jong-il. In defiance of long-established international sanctions, the young dictator oversaw a series of underground nuclear tests and test flights of medium and long-range missiles. In November 2016, an unarmed North Korean Hwasong-15 long-range missile climbed 2,800 miles above the ocean before splashing down off the coast of Japan. Though criticized as a direct provocation by the world community, Kim proclaimed the test showed that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 3, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) looking at a metal casing with two bulges at an undisclosed location. North Korea has developed a hydrogen bomb which can be loaded into the country's new intercontinental ballistic missile, the official Korean Central News Agency claimed on September 3. Questions remain over whether nuclear-armed Pyongyang has successfully miniaturised its weapons, and whether it has a working H-bomb, but KCNA said that leader Kim Jong-Un had inspected such a device at the Nuclear Weapons Institute.  AFP Contributor / Getty Images

On November 20, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump officially designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. In January 2018, U.S. intelligence agencies estimated that under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal had grown to include from 15 to 60 warheads and that its long-range missiles could strike targets anywhere in the United States. 

Leadership Style 

Kim Jong-un’s leadership style has been described as dictatorial as highlighted by the suppression of dissent and opposition. Upon taking power, he reportedly ordered the execution of as many as 80 senior officials carried over from his father’s regime. 

One of the best-documented examples of Kim’s “purges” was the execution of his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, an influential person during Kim Jong-il’s rule and one of Kim Jong-un’s own closest advisers. Arrested on suspicion of treason and plotting a coup, Jang was tried and executed on December 12, 2013. Members of his family were reported to have been similarly executed.

In February 2017, Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam died under unusual circumstances in Malaysia. Reports indicate he was poisoned by multiple suspects at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Living in exile for many years, Kim Jong-nam had been a vocal critic of his half-brother’s regime.

In February 2014, a United Nations commission of inquiry recommended that Kim Jong-un be tried for crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. In July 2016, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed personal financial sanctions on Kim. While Kim’s abuse of human rights was cited as the reason, Treasury officials stated at the time that the sanctions were intended to hinder North Korea’s nuclear missile program.  

Lifestyle and Family Life 

Many details of Kim Jong-un’s flamboyant lifestyle come from his father’s personal sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto. According to Fujimoto, Kim prefers expensive imported cigarettes, whisky, and luxury cars. Fujimoto recalls an incident when a then 18-year old Kim Jong-un questioned his family’s lavish lifestyle. “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding jet skis, having fun together,” said Kim. “But what of the lives of the average people?”

Dennis Rodman meeting with Kim Jong-un
Former US basketball player Dennis Rodman shows pictures of him reportedly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to media as he arrives at Beijing International Airport on September 7, 2013.  WANG ZHAO / Getty Images

Kim’s fixation with the sport of basketball is well known. In 2013, he met for the first time with U.S. professional basketball star Dennis Rodman. Rodman described Kim’s private island as being “like Hawaii or Ibiza, but he's the only one that lives there.”

Kim Jong-un married Ri Sol-ju in 2009. According North Korean state media, the marriage had been arranged by Kim’s father in 2008. In 2010, state media reported that the couple had given birth to a child. After his 2013 visit with Kim, Dennis Rodman reported that they had at least one child, a daughter named Kim Ju-ae.  

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "Biography of Kim Jong-un: North Korean Dictator." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Biography of Kim Jong-un: North Korean Dictator. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Biography of Kim Jong-un: North Korean Dictator." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).