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."
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis admitted that the test missile soared "higher, frankly, frankly, than any previous shot they have taken" and confirmed that North Korea was now capable of reaching any location on the planet with a strike. The launch drew swift condemnation from Japan and South Korea, while President Trump tersely noted, "We will take care of it."
In April 2018, before his summit with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Kim announced that he would suspend the country's nuclear and missile testing and shut down the site where the previous six nuclear tests were held. "We no longer need any nuclear test or test launches of intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles, and because of this the northern nuclear test site has finished its mission," he said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
Relations With South Korea
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 separating the two countries.
Summit with South Korean President
On April 27, 2018, Kim and Moon met at Panmunjom and crossed over to the South Korean side, the first time a North Korean ruler had done so. The partly televised meeting was marked by moments of levity, with Kim jokingly apologizing for interrupting his counterpart's sleep with late-night missile testing.
But they also addressed the serious matters at hand, discussing a possible conference with the U.S. and China that would formally end the Korean War, as well as efforts to do away with the nuclear weapons that Kim's regime had been developing. "South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula," read a statement signed by both leaders.
Visit to China
In late March 2018, a green train pulled into the central station of Beijing, China, bearing hallmarks of the armored types previously used by North Korean leaders. It was later confirmed that the train was carrying Kim and his top aides, on what was believed to be his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011.
According to Chinese and North Korean outlets, Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks at the Great Hall of the People. Additionally, Xi hosted a banquet for Kim and his wife, and treated them to an art performance. Kim reportedly offered the toast, "It is appropriate that my first trip abroad is in China’s capital, and my responsibility to consider continuing NK-China relations as valuable as life."
The surprise meeting came shortly before North Korea's scheduled talks with the South, and another historic summit, with the United States, on the horizon.
Meetings with U.S. President Trump
On June 12, 2018, Kim and Trump shook hands at the secluded Capella resort in Singapore, before heading off for private talks with their interpreters. Their meeting, the first between a member of the Kim ruling family and sitting U.S. president, came just weeks after the latest round of belligerent rhetoric threatened to torpedo the effort.
After top staffers joined them for extended discussions, the two leaders signed a joint statement in which Trump "committed to provide security guarantees" to North Korea and Kim "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." The statement was short on specifics, though the two men said that negotiations would resume in short order.
"We had a historic meeting and decided to leave the past behind," said Kim at the signing ceremony, noting that "the world will see a major change."
Despite Kim's expressed commitments to the peace process, North Korean factories continued to produce fissile material used in the creation of nuclear weapons. In late July, The Washington Post reported that the regime was potentially building new liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Kim and Trump met for a second time, at the Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27, 2019. The leaders shared friendly words, with Trump noting the country's great economic potential and Kim praising his counterpart's "courageous decision" to engage in talks.
However, the two sides abruptly finished their talks on the second day, reportedly over American refusal of North Korea's offer to dismantle its main nuclear facility— but not its entire weapons program — in exchange for the end of all sanctions. Trump said that the meeting ended on good terms, regardless, and that Kim had pledged to continue refraining from nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
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."
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.
Kim Jong-un, part of the cyber-generation, is seen as having a more mediagenic style then his father, with the younger Kim having given a New Year's broadcast, taking in musical performances with his wife and being seen as more engaging with soldiers and workers.
He has also embraced more Western cultural tastes, notably highlighted when former American professional basketball player Dennis Rodman paid North Korea a two-day visit in February 2013. During Rodman's stay, Kim accompanied him to watch a basketball game. Rodman claimed that he wanted to help improve relations between the United States and North Korea.
By 2018, when he was extending an olive branch to South Korea for denuclearization talks, Kim was also seeking to portray a kinder, gentler side of himself. The new version of Kim was apparent when he attended a concert for South Korean pop group Red Velvet in Pyongyang, which he called a "present" to his citizens.
North Korea demonstrated its capacity for cyber attacks in 2014 with the release of Sony's The Interview, a Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy in which a tabloid reporter is recruited to assassinate a fictional Kim. After North Korean authorities railed against the film, the FBI asserted that the country was responsible for a subsequent breach of Sony Pictures files, leading to the release of emails and other private information.
In December 2017, the Trump administration fingered North Korea as the source of the powerful WannaCry computer virus, which had affected approximately 230,000 computers worldwide that year. "This was a reckless attack and it was meant to cause havoc and destruction," said Thomas P. Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser. He admitted that the U.S. had few means of retaliation left against the already heavily sanctioned country, but said it was nonetheless important to call out North Korea for its cyber crimes.
Economic Plight of North Korea
North Korea has been mired in poverty and economic ruin, with a devastating famine and food shortages in the 1990s. The country also reportedly has a concentration camp system with torturous, horrifying conditions for thousands of prisoners.
Kim has vowed to focus on educational, agricultural and economic reforms for the betterment of North Koreans. Nonetheless, South Korea has asserted that human rights violations have continued within the borders of their northern neighbor, with dozens of officials executed by the state under Kim. In July 2016, the administration of President Barack Obama placed sanctions on Kim for human rights abuses, marking the first time the North Korean leader received a personal sanction from the U.S.
In December 2017, the International Bar Association published a report describing North Korea's political prison system. According to Thomas Buergenthal, one of the association's three jurists and a survivor of the infamous Auschwitz camp in Nazi Germany, Kim's prisoners endured conditions that were unmatched in their brutality.
"I believe that the conditions in the [North] Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field," he said.
The panel heard from former prisoners, prison guards and others as part of their investigation into North Korea's prison system from 1970 to 2006. They concluded that Kim's political prison camps were guilty of 10 of the 11 internationally recognized war crimes, including murder, enslavement and sexual violence.
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