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, who was the dictatorial leader of the country for over a decade until his death in 2011. Although Kim Jong-un has implemented some economic and agricultural reforms, human rights violations and brutal suppression of opposition have continued to be reported under his rule. He has also continued the country’s nuclear testing and what is believed to be the development of missile technology despite widespread international disapproval.
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."
Relations With South Korea
Kim subsequently struck a more 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 Korea President Moon Jae-in.
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. While reconciliation between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump still seemed far off, save for the friendly gestures of two impersonators at the Games, Kim Yo-jong 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."
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.
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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