Beginner’s Guide: DPRK Leadership

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or simply North Korea as it is commonly referred) was officially established in 1948 after the division of Korea following the end of World War II. The DPRK has had three leaders in its history:

Kim Il-sung: “The Great Leader” and Founder of the DPRK

Kim Il-Sung is often portrayed in the North as a jovial, caring, god-like leader

The founder of DPRK and the originator of the ideologies which pervade North Korean culture and propaganda to this day. Kim was born on April 15, 1912 and officially ruled the country until his death in 1994, although he is officially the “eternal” leader of the DPRK according to their constitution. According to North Korean versions of history, Kim was a god-like figure who defeated and expelled the Japanese occupiers after over 100,000 battles in 10 years, and became leader after his victory. In reality, he was hand-picked by the Soviets to lead the country after the division of the peninsula. Kim is responsible for the “personality cult” of North Korea which idealizes the leadership as father-like figures who know best for their “children,” yet who rule as authoritarian with an iron tight grip on its citizens.


Kim Jong-il: “The Dear Leader” and Eccentric Figure

Kim Jong-il is known as an eccentric leader, but within the DPRK he is most famous for the nuclear developments under his rule

The son of Kim Il-sung and his official successor in 1998 following his death in 1994. Although Kim did not become the official leader until he was in his 50s, he was officially anointed as his father’s successor in 1974 and it seems he had a hand in ruling the country for years before his fathers death. Outside of North Korea, Kim is known as an eccentric figure, with western tastes in film, sports, and the arts and is typically famous for his eccentric and expensive tastes. Within the DPRK he continued the glorification of his father’s rule, and continued to lead in his style, focusing even more heavily on “songun,” or military-first politics, and highly prioritizing nuclear and military development. His rule ended abruptly due to his poor health, which may have been exacerbated by his lavish lifestyle, and died in late 2011.

Kim Jong-un: “The Great Successor” and Unknown Factor

Kim Jong-un bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, the founder of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung

The son of Kim Jong-il, Kim took power after his father’s abrupt death and was rushed through the succession process. Very little is known about the current DPRK leader. His exact age is still unverified (most sources place it around 1985 or 1987) and the west did not even have a picture of Kim until a few years ago. Much has been made of his resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and the regime has used this to their advantage, often drawing comparisons between the current leader and the overly-devoted founder. Even the official moniker “Great Successor” harkens back to the “Great Leader.” So far, his policies have also mirrored those of his grandfather and father, as he often relies on notions of “songun” (military first policies) and “juche” (self-reliance).


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