Kim Jong Il

(b. 1942)

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

(b. Soviet Union, 16 Feb. 1942)

Korean; second ranked political leader 1980–94, primary leader 1994– Kim's political career was an accident of birth. As the son of North Korea's paramount leader, Kim Il Sung, Kim junior was groomed for political succession from an early age. Having sat out the Korean War in Manchuria, he later studied philosophy at the Kim Il Sung University. Some reports suggest that he also spent some time at the East German Air Force Academy.

Kim became his father's secretary while still in his early twenties, and held a number of important posts before becoming the official number two to his father in 1980. He took over an increasing amount of his father's work in the 1980s whilst establishing a basis for succession. Official reports stopped referring to him by name, instead using the title ‘Dear Leader’ to indicate his political pedigree and seniority. Kim also took over the mantle of ideological legitimacy—he was the only person who truly understood his father's genius, and the only person who could continue the great revolution.

Kim did indeed succeed his father in July 1994, but the succession was far from smooth. Kim only took over because he represented his father's ideas. But this was at a time when many Korean leaders blamed his father's ideas for the near collapse of the economy.

He initially became the effective leader, becoming leader of the Korean Workers Party in 1997 and head of state in 1998 (at which point his father was named ‘eternal President’). Lacking the charisma, ruthlessness, and political wit of his father, he faced immediate problems with floods causing famine and economic collapse in 1995–6. The scale of these problems was underlined when isolationist North Korea accepted UN food aid in 1998. In 2000 this isolationism decreased when Kim held the first summit between North and South Korea, with South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung travelling to Pyongyang. There was a limited opening of border liaison offices and about 100 North Koreans were able to meet their families who lived in the South. These improved arrangements were fragile, however, so that, although cross-border trains began to run in 2007, relations swiftly deteriorated in 2008 when a conservative, Lee Myung Bak, was elected as South Korea's President. In 2002 President George W. Bush listed North Korea as a member of his so-called ‘axis of evil’, as a state sponsor of terrorism. Relations with the USA deteriorated and North Korea reactivated its nuclear programme, which had been suspended in an agreement with the USA in 1994. In 2003 the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, amidst heightened global concern, international negotiations started to end North Korea's nuclear ambitions. These stalled when, in 2005, North Korea announced that it had a nuclear weapon which they then tested in 2006. However, by 2007, North Korea had let inspectors back and by 2008 the USA no longer described North Korea as a sponsor of state terrorism. However, the position remains tense, as shown when North Korea announced in 2009 that it had launched a rocket carrying a satellite into space, widely seen as a test of a rocket capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. In May 2009 there was a further nuclear test, which was followed by strong international condemnation.


Subjects: Politics.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.