Together, father and son Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il form a dynasty that has ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or Communist North Korea, since its creation in 1948. Because of the personality cult established by Kim Il Sung and because Korea remains a tightly closed society, details about the lives of the two men remain scarce. The information that is disseminated officially is so flattering that it is highly suspect. For example, one biography of Kim Il Sung reports that he fought more than 100,000 times against the Japanese in the seven years between 1932 and 1945 and was always victorious.
Kim Il Sung (originally Kim Sung Chu) was born in 1912 in a northeastern province of Korea. His father was a schoolteacher who took his family to Chinese Manchuria in 1925 to escape Japan’s harsh colonization of their homeland. For the next 14 years, Kim lived in Manchuria, where he joined the Communist Party in 1931. In 1939 Kim went to the Soviet Union, where he received further military training and was part of the Soviet military force that invaded and occupied Pyongyang in 1945.
According to the terms of the Yalta agreement, the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into North and South. Kim stayed in the north with the Soviets, who helped him prevail over other factions and become premier of the new Democratic People’s Republic in 1948. Under Soviet and Chinese sponsorship Kim instigated the Korean War, which lasted until 1953.
A great admirer of Stalin, Kim patterned his rule after the Soviet leader. During the years following the Korean War, Kim solidified his power, purged his enemies, drove out foreign influences, and established himself as almost a god. He also managed, through rigorous control of the press, to exalt his family, raising many of them to the status of national heroes. He decreed that no newspaper could be published without his picture on the front page and without all the stories approved by government censors. His pictures and statues were also in every public building in the nation.
These and other actions were undertaken as part of Kim’s self-proclaimed doctrine of Juchie, which encompassed the total economic, social, and political philosophy of the country. North Korean citizens born after the Korean War had little or no knowledge of the outside world, since anything foreign was prohibited. His birthday became a national holiday. Since 1976, the Loyalty Festival Period has included February 16 (Kim Jong Il’s birthday) and April 15 (Kim Il Sung’s birthday).
According to some reports, Korea went to extraordinary lengths to prolong Kim Il Sung’s life. Purportedly a clinic staffed with 2,000 specialists was constructed solely for the purpose of caring for Kim and his son. Staff at the clinic experimented with diets and drugs on two teams of men who were similar to the leaders in age and body makeup. These efforts to extend his life all failed and the elder Kim died in 1994.
Kim Jong Il, the eldest son of Kim Il Sung, became his country’s next dictator. He was born in 1941 while his father was training in the Soviet Union. The Soviets had established a school for the children of Korea’s guerrilla fighters, the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, where Jong Il received his early education. After two years of training at the Air Academy in East Germany, the young Kim returned to Korea and attended Kim Il Sung University.
Kim Jong Il’s portraits began to appear with his father’s, and he was referred to by titles such as “the sun of the communist future.” He made official visits to China and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, further indicating that he would follow his father as ruler. But he was not immediately named as his father’s successor. The title of the country’s president was reserved for his father by a constitutional amendment.
Little information is available about the personal life of Kim Jong Il. Some sources report that his half-brother is being groomed as his successor while other reports indicate that his sons are embroiled in a struggle to become heir.
- French, Paul. North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula, A Modern History. London: Zed Books, 2005;
- Martin, Bradley K. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004.