January 14, 2021

A Message to the Incoming Biden Administration – Pay Attention to North Korea

By George Hutchinson 

Growing Signs of an Economic Crisis 

As the Biden administration gets underway amidst ongoing political strife in the U.S., signs of a progressively destabilizing North Korea might not get the level of recognition required to ensure coordinated plans are in place to deal with regional instability. Rather than wait for a deep crisis to occur in Northeast Asia, it will be essential that comprehensive planning and coordination occur early in the new administration. What exactly are the vulnerabilities of the Kim regime to instability, what are the risks of highest concern, and what can be done?

Media and policy establishment attention to North Korea has been mostly fixated on the regime’s nuclear program—from the tests and missile launches that culminated in late 2017 to Trump-Kim summitry that many hoped would lead to denuclearization negotiations to where we are now, waiting to see how Kim will size up the Biden administration and whether North Korean provocations will resume.

Getting less attention but having as much potential impact on regional stability is Kim Jong-un’s need to get the North Korean economy going. At a plenary meeting of the North Korean Workers’ Party held on April 21, 2018, Kim announced to his central committee that nuclear and long-range missile tests were no longer needed—the nuclear program was complete. It was time, according to Kim, to focus on building a powerful economy.[1] But that was almost three years ago, and conditions for North Korea have grown worse.

Initial hopes for getting the North Korean economy on track were dashed in February 2019 at the Hanoi summit when Kim tried to negotiate a generous package of sanctions relief up front in return for watered down commitments to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Donald Trump refused to go along, resulting in a long train ride home for the empty-handed North Korean leader. Sanctions have remained in place since, and Trump, the only sitting U.S. president to ever engage a North Korean leader directly, lost his reelection bid. Meanwhile, there are no signs in sight that North Korea’s economy will improve any time soon.

Kim may sense that patience over the economy is running thin. On January 5, 2021, at the opening of the 8th Workers' Party Congress, North Korea’s largest and most important political event, he admitted the regime had fallen short of meeting the country’s economic goals.[2] Not long after experiencing punishing typhoon-related flooding, he openly shed tears while apologizing for the regime’s failures during an October military parade speech celebrating the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.[3] But things are not likely to get better. Sanctions continue and the country’s borders with China have remained sealed due to the COVID pandemic, causing trade with its neighbor to plummet by 75 percent over the first 10 months in 2020.[4] Are these warning signs enough to get North Korea, and the possibility of regime instability on the administration’s radar?


The Real Possibility for Regime Instability

In late April 2020, rumors mushroomed and swirled over the condition of Kim Jong-un’s health. North Korea’s cheese-loving, chain-smoking leader was reportedly being treated after undergoing a “cardiovascular procedure” on April 12 at the Hyangsang Medical Center in North Pyongan Province.[5] The previous month, North Korea’s state news agency had ham-handedly issued a self-flattering statement about the country’s response to COVID-19, praising the regime’s vigilance at keeping the number of cases contained at zero. Even at this early stage of the pandemic, North Korea’s claim of nil cases seemed highly dubious. The virus originated in Wuhan, the first country outside of China to experience a spike in cases was South Korea, and North Korea is sandwiched between the two countries.[6] What was this seemingly flagrant suppression of information intended to cover up? Were the elite in Pyongyang hiding something?

Kim’s absence from several key events that April, including the annual public celebration of his grandfather’s birthday, fueled speculation over the potentially perilous condition of his health. Adding to the disquietude were reports that made it seem like the North Korean system was in the initial throes of breakdown—movement of trains was allegedly disrupted on both sides of the border between China and North Korea while low-flying helicopters were supposedly spotted over Pyongyang as panic-stricken residents stockpiled goods in the capital. The U.S., meanwhile, was monitoring indications that suggested Kim was in purported “grave danger.” Then in early May, as quickly as they had begun, rumors and speculation over Kim’s ill health halted when pictures appeared of him at a ribbon-cutting event for a new fertilizer factory.[7]

The extent to which Kim Jong-un may or may not have been incapacitated during April 2020 may never be known. Regardless, the media-driven speculation over Kim’s health did provide an opportunity for decisionmakers, planners and policy practitioners to re-ponder Kim dynastic power transition and the potential for regime instability, along with the attendant risks and possible responses. To be sure, Pyongyang has demonstrated a degree of resilience for decades, weathering natural disasters, muddling through self-inflicted crises, and managing precarious dynastic successions. The regime’s success, if one can call it that, lies largely in a suffocating system of control that restricts society, controls ideas and information, and brutally punishes violators with force.[8] Nevertheless, the regime remains vulnerable.

There are numerous potential exogenous and endogenous causes that would create instability and the Kim regime is highly vulnerable to all of them. These range widely, from a premature exit by Kim Jong-un—natural or unnatural, to coups, uprisings, or simply the regime’s inability to continue coping with international pressure against the backdrop of myriad other ongoing crises. Also included are scenarios like widescale natural disasters or accidents that do not begin as direct challenges to the Kim’s party leadership, but simply shake the regime due to their staggering implications. A Chernobyl-scale environmental or safety-related event could create chaos and confusion at levels that rupture regime stability. Should the regime unsuccessfully withstand these shocks to its ruling structure, countless unsettling scenarios could unfold.[9]

The Hazards of the Korean People’s Army without Clear Command and Control

Any scenario involving breakdown of the Kim regime creates grave concerns over the disposition and employment, intentional or inadvertent, of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and its highly destructive weapons, not to mention North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, which of course include a portfolio of nuclear warheads. The scenarios are further complicated by the numerous variables involved: China’s potential intervention; U.S. involvement vis-à-vis OPCON considerations, existing contingency plans, and the U.S.-ROK military alliance; South Korea’s political approach; involvement by the UN and NGOs; refugees and other humanitarian considerations; and the potential formation of factional groups, each competing to fill the vacuum of power.

This list of notional factors represents just some of the variables within the full range of possibilities. Adding even more complexity to concerns over the disposition and employment of KPA forces is the vertical rigidity of North Korea’s command and control system. As a means to control the KPA, information is rarely allowed to flow horizontally. Information generated at the bottom of the command chain flows up vertically and orders flow back down the chain. Little, if any, communication is shared among adjacent KPA units.[10] In a scenario where the regime is destabilized, KPA units, with no command and control node in place to issue orders, may have no other choice than to default to pre-built checklists and execute pre-assigned tasks with no regard to, and no understanding of, the real-world events going on around them. Cut off from information, these units could operate in a highly suboptimal way, thinking they are going about business as per a pre-approved plan.

The high stakes involved over the disposition and employment of the KPA along with the added complexity of numerous interacting variables not only puts primacy on maintaining contingency plans that are well-coordinated and up to date, but it also places prioritization on understanding potential communication pathways capable of reaching KPA military forces in the event of a regime breakdown. This will be vital in order to provide lines of emergency communication outside of broken-down regime control channels to prevent the unnecessary employment of weaponry or force, prepare for complex humanitarian operations intended to provide assistance, and if needed, sustain internal defensive operations. Campaigns of information dissemination must be designed to inform KPA forces, down to the soldier level, of the real-world situation occurring outside North Korea, imminent or ongoing human rights violations targeting them, and humanitarian help that is on its way to tend to them. To achieve these vital activities, it is essential that comprehensive interagency planning and coordination occur early in the new administration, rather than waiting for a crisis to occur.




[1] “DPRK Report on the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee,” The National Committee on North Korea,
https://www.ncnk.org/resources/publications/dprk_report_third_plenary_meeting_of_seventh_central_committee_of_wpk.pdf, accessed January 10, 2021

[2] Shim Kyu-seok, “Kim Concedes Economic Shortfalls as Congress Opens,” Korea JoongAng Daily, January 6, 2021, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2021/01/06/national/northKorea/North-Korea-8th-Party-Congress-Kim-Jongun/20210106165200570.html, accessed January 10, 2021

[3] “Kim Jong Un’s Admitting to Economic Failure,” The Dong-A Ilbo, January 7, 2021, https://www.donga.com/en/article/all/20210107/2353213/1/Kim-Jong-Un-s-admitting-to-economic-failure, accessed January 10, 2021

[4] Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung, “Mired in Crises, North Korea's Kim to Open Big Party Meeting,” AP, December 29, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/pandemics-seoul-south-korea-north-korea-storms-5cae55abfc7a3db4ee10672530d591b7, accessed January 10, 2021

[5] Ha Yoon-a, “김정은, 최근 심혈관 시술 받았다…여전히 특각서 치료 중 [Kim Jong Un Receives Recent Cardiovascular Procedure...Still Being Treated at Villa],” DailyNK, April 20, 2020, https://www.dailynk.com/김정은-최근-심혈관-시술-받았다여전히-특각서-치/, accessed January 3, 2021, 

[6] George Hutchinson, “Reckless Response: North Korea Should Come Clean on COVID-19,” Center for Security Policy Studies, George Mason University, March 19, 2020, http://csps.gmu.edu/2020/03/19/reckless-response-north-korea-should-come-clean-on-covid-19/?fbclid=IwAR3HQxs5RXQ3fqKiAJ6ghqV4iB3Bq0sRi7g-VsnzsAEWEMwLBMAIYo1xCpg, accessed January 5, 2021

[7] For overlapping coverage of the speculative reporting and reactions over Kim Jong-un’s status, see Ha, “김정은, 최근 심혈관 시술 받았다…여전히 특각서 치료 중[Kim Jong Un Receives Recent Cardiovascular Procedure...Still Being Treated at Villa]”; Anna Fifield, “Is the Talk About Kim Jong Un Being Sick—or Worse—True? Pyongyang is Abuzz, Too,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/is-the-talk-about-kim-jong-un-being-sick--or-worse--true-pyongyang-is-abuzz-too/2020/04/26/d29b9770-873e-11ea-81a3-9690c9881111_story.html; Jim Sciutto, Joshua Berlinger, Yoonjung Seo, Kylie Atwood and Zachary Cohen, “US Monitoring Intelligence That North Korean Leader is in Grave Danger After Surgery, CNN, April 21, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/20/politics/kim-jong-un-north-korea/index.html; Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “North Korea’s Leader May Be in Ill Health. Here’s What We Know About Instability in the World’s Most Secretive Regime,” The Washington Post, April 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/22/north-koreas-leader-may-be-ill-health-heres-what-we-know-about-instability-worlds-most-secretive-regime/; Chad O'Carroll and Oliver Hotham, “Life Continues as Normal in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Un Health Rumors Swirl,” NK News, April 20, 2020, https://www.nknews.org/2020/04/life-continues-as-normal-in-pyongyang-as-kim-jong-un-health-rumors-swirl/; Choe Sang-hun, “Kim Jong-un Is Back. What Happens When He’s Really Gone?” The New York Times, May 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/world/asia/kim-jong-un-alive.html; Paul Farhl, “Kim Jong Un Appears to be Alive After All. So Why Did CNN and Other News Outlets Report He Was on His Deathbed?” May 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/kim-jong-un-appears-to-be-alive-after-all-so-how-did-his-death-make-the-news/2020/05/05/e9cf7f0e-8d6c-11ea-a0bc-4e9ad4866d21_story.html; all accessed January 3, 2021

[8] For a detailed description of North Korea’s “Authoritarian Toolbox,” see, “Daniel L. Byman and Jennifer Lind, "Pyongyang's Survival Strategy: Tools of Authoritarian Control in North Korea," International Security, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Summer 2010), pp. 44-74

[9] For examples of scenarios that could occur involving a Kim regime collapse, see Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., “Planning for the Future: Conditions of Combined ROK-U.S. Military Intervention in Potential DPRK Contingencies,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 2012), p. 492, http://www.kida.re.kr/data/kjda/06_Bruce%20E_Bechtol.pdf, accessed January 5, 2020; David S. Maxwell, “Catastrophic Collapse of North Korea: Implications for the United States Military,” a monograph prepared for the School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, Academic Year 1995-96, pp. 5-15 https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a314274.pdf, accessed January 5, 2020; Bruce W. Bennett and Jennifer Lind, “The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 2011), pp. 87-89. Also, see Robert Collins’ phases of North Korean collapse, Robert D. Kaplan, “When North Korea Falls,” The Atlantic (October 2006), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/10/when-north-korea-falls/305228/, accessed January 11, 2021. 

[10] Joseph S. Bermudez, "Information and the DPRK's Military and Power-Holding Elite," in Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig, eds., "North Korean Policy Elites," IDA Paper, P-3903 (Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Defense Analysis, June 2004), p. I-S-2

January 08, 2021

The North Korean Dictator’s Birthday Seen from the Free World

A message to Kim Jong-un on his Birthday, January 8, 2021
By Kim Myong, Senior North Korean Escapee and HRNK Contributor


Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

Today is January 8, the day when Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator currently in his mid-30s, was born. For my fellow countrymen in North Korea, this day is supposed to be one of the “most auspicious days of the nation” that should matter more than any other day, including their parents’, siblings’, and even their own birthdays.

So far, this day has not been marked red—that is, as a national holiday—on the official North Korean calendar. Nor has the North Korean media released any single article mentioning that today is the birthday of their supreme leader.

However, back in September 2010, when this young man was officially designated as the successor of his father Kim Jong-il,[1] I was among the senior officials serving the Party, the Central Government, and the Armed Forces in North Korea. And so, I was one of those informed through the internal notice system of the Korean Workers' Party (North Korea’s unique ruling party), that January 8 was his birthday, without any mention of his year of birth. At that time, the information about Kim Jong-un's birthday, although his birth year was unspecified, was classified as “top secret,” limited to a few “concerned” people inside North Korea. As the Korean proverb has it: “Words without feet travel a thousand leagues.” Meaning, “once uttered, word tends to spread far and wide in an instant.” This incomplete information was immediately spread all across North Korea. Nevertheless, no one could say it out loud publically since they were used to complying for decades with the internal rule that any information circulated to senior officials, but not included in official publications—such as the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of the Korean Workers' Party—was secret.

Information on Kim Jong-un's birthday, which remained a “publicly known secret” in North Korea, was declassified officially to the world in January 2014 when Dennis Rodman, an American former NBA player, visited North Korea and sang a happy birthday song to Kim Jong-un in the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium filled with tens of thousands of Pyongyang citizens. This scene was broadcast to the entire world.
I lived in North Korea until some years ago, and I am now settled in the Free World. Still, I feel heartbroken when I recall my time on public holidays in North Korea, devoted helplessly and miserably to the Kim family, and not to myself and my family.

Public Holidays in North Korea Are Meant to Inspire and Sustain the Kim Family Personality Cult

North Korea has at least 50 public holidays and commemorations in a calendar year.[2]

The purpose pursued by the North Korean authorities when enacting a public holiday is twofold: (i) to preserve a minimum level of observing Korean traditions and international celebrations; and (ii) to ensure that “the great leaders’ revolutionary life and achievements shine across generations.” Therefore, nearly three-fourths of the public holidays and commemorations established in this country are connected to the political events highlighting the life and achievements of the Kim family, and only a few originate from Korean traditions or international celebrations (Fig. 1). Out of these, April 15 and February 16 are considered the most important holidays. These days are called the “Day of the Sun” and the “Day of the Shining Star,” marking the births of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the world's most vicious dictators, who have turned the country into a prison for most, enslaving and exploiting their people for decades.

Figure 1:

Distribution of North Korean public holidays and commemoration days by type (Unit: Percentage)
Source: North Korean Calendar, 2020. Printed by the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Public holidays in North Korea do not exist to provide people with social and cultural leisure or sufficient time to relax. They exist to impose another type of intensive organizational life on the people, and to inspire the idolization of the Kim family through various political organizations to which people belong.[3] On these holidays, North Koreans are obliged to start off their long day by offering a basket or a bouquet of flowers at Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s statues or “shrines” displaying their full body portraits in mozaics. These are found everywhere in the country. This gesture alone puts an enormous economic burden on North Korean families, who have to pay a minimum of 5,000 North Korean won to buy a bouquet of flowers, which is 25 percent higher than the average monthly salary of 4,000 won. In many cases, where two or more holidays come in a row in a month, people fall onto very hard times, as they have to borrow money to buy these flowers.

In addition to the wreath laying, various congratulatory group activities are organized at workplaces. These include the adoption of congratulatory messages to the supreme leader, sports competitions, art performances, revolutionary feature film sessions, lectures and oath taking, etc. North Koreans are mandated to participate faithfully in this political life. If they fail to do so, they may be labeled as“indecent”or “ideologically sick,” and in the worst cases, their names may be included in the black lists managed by their political organizations.

People engage in mandatory “group life” and “group activities aimed to worship the leaders. At the end of the day, because of engaging in such boring mandatory “group activities” without compensation, people naturally get exhausted. On holidays, fatigue accumulates under great stress. Sometimes, to ease people’s complaints, especially while celebrating the Kims’ birthdays, North Korean authorities extend holidays for a day or two.

However, due to the mental and physical stress and economic burden arising from each of these public holidays, North Koreans do not feel very pleased with an increase in the number of public holidays, such as Kim Jong-un’s birthday.

The highest-level agency that designs and executes the idolization projects on public holidays is the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers’ Party. This department plays an instrumental role in maintaining the North Korean regime by maintaining the cult of personality and loyalty to the Kim family through the carefully planned and executed brainwashing of all North Koreans.

How is Kim Jong-un’s Birthday Celebrated in North Korea?

Kim Jong-un has not yet approved the conversion of his birthday into a public holiday. He may think that it is too early to do so as he is still in his thirties, or he may feel ashamed to do so because he failed to deliver on his ealier promises that his people would not starve again.

When I was in North Korea, I heard that Kim Jong-un’s close aides, who were in a frenzy to excel in the loyalty competition, had submitted proposals to make his birthday a “great national holiday,” but their proposal was rejected every time.

However, given that his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il made their own birthdays national holidays in 1968 and 1976, when they turned 56 and 34 respectively, he seems not too far away from doing the same. No one but Kim Jong-un would know the right time for making every January 8 one of the “auspicious national holidays.”

Over the past years, many North Korean people prepared baskets or bouquets of flowers in advance of the eve of January 8, anticipating that the following day would be declared a national holiday overnight. This has not become a reality yet.

Then, does anything really happen in North Korea on Kim Jong-un's birthday? Yes, it does.

In fact, Kim Jong-un has approved all the other bells and whistles, except for the formal declaration of his birthday as a public holiday. Internally, the Korean Workers’ Party has moved towards celebrating January 8 to some extent by implicitly approving a number of activities organized for this day. It should not be considered a coincidence that Dennis Rodman came to Pyongyang in January 2014 and sang a happy birthday song for the young dictator in public. This should be considered a carefully planned and executed act by the Korean Workers’ Party.

Since 2011, a campaign has been undertaken among the senior officials, which included myself, to prepare personal letters and birthday gifts for Kim Jong-un every January 8. When I first wrote a letter on his birthday, l misspelled his name as “Kim Jong-woon,” just like some other officials who did not know how to spell his name correctly. In addition, not knowing how old he was at the time, I was not sure how to formulate the first sentence that should normally read as: “On your (#)th anniversary, I would like to extend warmest congratulations.” After giving it careful thought, I finally decided to make it: “On your significant birthday … ” In the body of the letter, I also had to write at least two sentences praising him for having done good work for the people. For this part, not knowing what this young man had done so far, I spent hours trying to formulate a sentence crediting his father’s achievements to him, and this was the best I could do to finish the job. I was extraordinarily upset with myself for having written a congratulatory birthday message to the younger dictator I knew so little about. Likewise, not knowing this man’s preferences, it was a tough job to prepare a birthday gift for him.

On the other hand, it was well known inside the Korean Workers’ Party that every year, Kim Jong-un organized a birthday party with his close “friends,” entertained by his private “pleasure brigade,” a group of women carefully hand-picked to entertain men belonging to the inner core of the Kim family and the top echelons of the Korean Workers’ Party and the North Korean regime. His “partying style” is exactly the same as his father Kim Jong-il, who was the first to design a “party culture” for himself in the mid-1970s soon after he became Kim Il-sung’s successor. He used this “party culture” until his last days as a means to maintain his power and manage his entourage. “Like father, like son,” Kim Jong-un has probably inherited the DNA of “party culture” from his father.

Until I defected from North Korea, I was forced to prepare congratulatory letters, gifts, and “loyalty funds” for Kim Jong-un on such important occasions as January 8, September 9 (foundation of the DPRK), and October 10 (foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party). I believe that similar projects are still going on in North Korea today not only among the senior officials, but also among the general public to deepen Kim Jong-un’s cult of personality, and to create a de facto holiday atmosphere on his birthday. 

Factors that Hinder Kim Jong-Un's Idolization

The first attempt to idolize Kim Jong-un began early in 2010, when he became known as Kim Jong-il’s successor. Revolutionary anecdotes about his childhood and his genius as well as songs praising him, such as “Footsteps,” were created to be widely disseminated among the people.

The North Korean authorities have been striving to make him a “Divine Being” by beautifully packaging all the traces of his short life with revolutionary activities, just like they did for his father and grandfather. Still, they do not want to reveal the specific contents surrounding his birth, such as the year and place of birth or his biological mother.

Last year, North Korea reportedly released a book on the “revolutionary history of Kim Jong-un,” where a full chapter on his birth was missing.[4] This would mean that the quiet, but thorough and steady preparatory work to “sanctify” him is still going on in North Korea and requires more time to be completed. At present, no one knows for sure whether the outside world will be told that Wonsan of Gangwon Province is his birthplace or whether the sacred Mount Baekdu will finally be chosen as his “mythical birthplace” to emulate his father’s example.[5]

The scenario of making Mount Baekdu Kim Jong-un’s birthplace would certainly be more impressive than any other scenario. But how many North Koreans will believe that the future crown prince was born on Mount Baekdu in the coldest region in the country in January, the coldest month of the year, during this peaceful time (that is, not during the Japanese occupation, when his father Kim Jong-il was born).

As far as his mother Ko Yong-hui is concerned, many people in North Korea know that she was one of the Koreans repatriated from Japan with her family in the 1960s to start her professional career as a dancer of the Mansudae Arts Troupe, and that she quit her job to live her "royal concubine" life with Kim Jong-il. In North Korea, I personally visited Ko Yong-hui’s tomb, isolated from other burial sites, located on the back slope of the “Taesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery” hill in Pyongyang. At that time, I was very surprised that her tombstone only read " Son-gun Korea’s mother" without revealing that she was Kim Jong-un's mother. After Kim Jong-un came to power, the work to idolize his mother was launched inside the Korean People’s Army and in some civilian units, but this was suspended all of sudden on the supreme leader’s order.

There has been a tendency in North Korea to despise the Koreans who migrated from Japan in the 1960s or 1970s by calling them "Jae-po."[6] The fact that Ko Yong-hui was a “Jae-po” and that she was not a legal wife to Kim Jong-il, which many people know, seems to be main the reason why her idolization was halted.
The fact that Kim Jong-un was an illegitimate child, a “bastard” of a "Jae-po" lady may obscure his own legitimacy, since this would be inconsistent with the principle of succession in the Kim family, emphasizing the Baekdu lineage. At the same time, it looks like the Department of Propaganda and Agitation of the Korean Workers' Party is not yet confident they can elevate Kim Jong-un to God-like status at the same level as Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and they may still find it burdensome and difficult to challenge common sense and manipulate facts.

While the idolization of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il was easier and went relatively smoother in the second half of the last century because the media for news reporting were TV, radio, and newspapers, this is no longer the case today when news is delivered at the speed of light to every corner of the planet with the advancement of information technology and social media. Although the North Korean regime continues to control information, some North Koreans do have more access to information from the outside world via a variety of vehicles. Therefore, it would not be as easy as it may look to instill the idolization of Kim Jong-un among North Koreans in the 21st century.

However, I do believe that the North Korean authorities, who are masters of manipulating facts and lords of lies, will not leave those elements necessary for Kim Jong-il’s idolization blank forever. They already have plenty of experience in manipulating facts. They still insist that the Korean War, which began on June 25, 1950 with their own invasion of the South, was “a war of aggression caused by the American imperialists and their South Korean puppets.” In 2008, when Kim Jong-il was not able to make a public appearance during the September 9 celebration festival because of a stroke he had suffered a month earlier, they lied to the people, telling them that his absence was to serve the purpose of “safeguarding the head of our revolution against a terrorist attack plotted by our enemies.”

Nothing is impossible when it comes to idolizing the supreme leader in North Korea. Sooner or later, the time will come when North Korea completes Kim Jong-un’s personality cult by wrapping up his birthplace and his mother in a shroud of mystery and myth.

The Fate of North Korean Dictators as Big Frogs in a Small Pond

For any country in the world, the scope and magnitude of countries visited by the Head of State symbolize their openness and engagement policy as well as their external status vis-à-vis others.

At the “Kumsusan Palace of the Sun,” where the mummified bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are carefully enshrined, visitors can find a large map on the wall, visualizing the countries that these two dictators visited in their lifetime. In front of this map, the North Korean guides explain that “Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were the world leaders most respected and praised by all peoples” and that “they led the communist movement and the world revolution by visiting lots of countries.” However, based on historical facts, one can easily realize that the propaganda is biased and misleading.[7]
During his 46-year-long reign starting from 1948, when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded, until his death in 1994, Kim Il-sung visited a total of 15 countries 53 times. However, his visits were skewed towards North Korea’s closest allies, such as China and Russia, which he visited 15 and 13 times, respectively. In addition, he visited one to four times other socialist countries in Eastern Europe, including East Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria, and a few non-aligned countries, such as Algeria and Indonesia. Kim Jong-il, the reclusive ruler who reigned for 17 years after Kim Il-sung’s death, visited only two countries, China and Russia, eight and three times, respectively. His son Kim Jong-un, the current North Korean ruler, who acceded to the throne in 2011, visited Singapore and Vietnam for the US-DPRK summit meetings. He also visited North Korea’s traditional allies, China three times and Russia once (Fig.2).

Kim Il-sung, who enjoyed the support of socialist countries and the Third World during the Cold War between East and West, was able to visit a far larger number of countries for active diplomatic engagement. However, his target countries were strictly limited to the socialist camp and the Non-Aligned Movement. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the socialist camp in Eastern Europe collapsed and the Cold War ended, the scope and extent of North Korea's diplomatic activities began to shrink significantly. However, as a result of the Sunshine Policy promoted by the South Korean government, and of the US engagement policy at the end of the 20th century, North Korea was given an opportunity to escape international isolation by establishing diplomatic relations with many Western countries, and to expand its diplomatic horizon. Nevertheless, North Korea was not able to capitalize on this opportunity for the sake of its economic development.

Had Kim Jong-il been keen on economic prosperity for his country, he would not have been satisfied with visiting only his traditional allies. He would have been more willing to visit other advanced countries to learn and benchmark their economic success stories. Despite the favor shown by many Western countries for establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea,[8]

Kim Jong-il was reluctant to open up to them because they wanted to engage with North Korea on its hot potato issues, such as denuclarization and human rights violations. Instead of opening up for economic prosperity, he firmly closed the country’s door, deepening North Korea’s isolation and continuing his nuclear arms race.

Today, North Korea’s young dictator is following the same path taken by his predecessors instead of learning the lessons of the past. He seems more interested in benchmarking his predecessors’ “wisdom” and governance styles to complete nuclear development, rather than benchmarking the development models offered by other countries for the sake of economic prosperity. He continues to adhere to self-reliance as the national philosophy to make the country one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in the world.

Unless Kim Jong-un makes a bold decision to get away from the legacies and footprints of his predecessors to tread a new path of reform and open policy, he will remain completely isolated from the outside world, and there will be no country in the world, other than China and Russia, to welcome him in their territory. Just like his predecessors, Kim Jong-un will continue to be a big frog in a small well, the most isolated ruler in the 21st century.

Figure 2:

Number of countries visited and total number of visits by Kim family rulers

Source: Compiled by the author from media sources including Yonhap Yearbook 2019

A Message to Kim Jong-un from the Free World on his Birthday

Each time I wrote a personal congratulatory letter to Kim Jong-un on his birthday or other occasions in North Korea, I sincerely wished that he would lead the country down the right path. However, as time passed by, I soon realized that I was wrong to wish so, and there was nothing else to expect from him other than him turning into a more vicious dictator than his predecessors. As long as Kim Jong-un reigns, there can be no bright future for North Korea. I firmly believe that my fellow countrymen still living in North Korea will share my feelings. Therefore, I would like to replace my usual congratulatory letters sent to him on his birthdays with this short message:

“Kim Jong-un,

My fellow countrymen have suffered long and hard enough under three generations of your family, beginning with your grandfather Kim Il-sung. Now, it is time to change the status quo.

Live the rest of your life as a normal North Korean citizen, and STEP DOWN immediately from the throne. Leave the future of this country in the free hands of your 25 million people. In this way, you can save your own life and the lives of your own family, too.

I look forward to you making a smart decision.”

Annex I: List of public holidays or commemorations in North Korea


A: Public holidays* 





January 1st



or New Year’s Day 

Celebrates the opening of the Gregorian New Year.

January 8


Kim Jong-un’s birthday

This day has not yet been designated as public holiday. However, it is unofficially celebrated by the elite group of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

January 25

(February 12, 2021)



or Lunar New Year’s Day

Celebrates the opening of the Lunar New Year.

February 8



or Army Foundation Day

Celebrates the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Korean People’s Army in 1948.

February 8

(February 26, 2021)



Celebrates the First Full Moon on the 15thday of the first month by the Lunar calendar.

February 16



or Day of the Shining Star

Celebrates Kim Jong-il’s birthday (allegedly born in 1942).

March 8


International Women’s Day


April 4

(April 5, 2021)



One of the 24 Korean seasons that falls on April 4 or 5, based on the Gregorian calendar.

April 15



or Day of the Sun

Celebrates Kim Il-sung’s birthday (born in 1912).

May 1st


May Day


June 6


Korean Children’s Union Foundation Day

Celebrates the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Korean Children’s Union in 1946.

July 27


Day of Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War

Celebrates the ending of the Korean War in 1953. North Korea claims that the war ended victoriously due to Kim Il-sung’s leadership.

August 15


Day of Korea’s Liberation 

Celebrates the day when Korea was liberated from the Japanese occupation in 1945. North Korea claims that Kim Il-sung’s guerilla was instrumental to the liberation.

August 25



Honors the day when Kim Jong-il started the “Son-gun”-based leadership by inspecting an Army Tank Unit in 1960. Son-gun is a Korean word for “military first”.

September 9


National Day

Celebrates the day when Kim Il-sung founded the DPRK in 1948.

October 1

(September 21, 2021)


Chu-sok or Han-ga-wi


Korean “Thanksgiving” that falls on the 15th day of the eighth month by the Lunar calendar.

October 10


Party Foundation Day

Celebrates the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Workers’ Party of Korea in 1945.

November 16


Mother’s Day

This day has become a public holiday in 2012 to honor the day when Kim Il-sung made a speech at the First National Conference of Mothers in 1961.

December 27


Constitution Day

Celebrates the day when the Socialist Constitution of the DPRK was enacted in 1972.


B: Public commemorations





February 14


Generalissimo Day (1)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-il received the title "Generalissimo of the Republic" posthumously in 2012.

March 2nd


Tree Planting Day

People across the country plant trees.

April 9


Election Day (1)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-il was elected Chairman of the National Defense Commission in 1993.

April 11


Election Day (2)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-un was elected First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2012.

April 13


Election Day (3)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-un was elected First Chairman of the National Defense Commission in 2012.

April 13


Generalissimo Day (2)

Honors the day when Kim Il-sung received the title “Generalissimo of the Republic” in 1992.

April 21


Kang Pan-sok’s birthday 

Honors Kang Ban-sok’s birthday,

mother of Kim Il-sung (born in 1892).

April 25


Army Foundation Day

Honors the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in 1932.

May 5


Association for the Restoration of the Fatherland Foundation Day

Honors the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Association for the Restoration of the Fatherland in 1936.

May 9


Election Day (4)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-un was elected Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2016.

June 1st


International Children’s Day


June 5


National Memorial Day

Honors the day when Kim Hyong-jik, father of Kim Il-sung died in 1926.

June 19


Day of Kim Jong-il's commencement of work


Honors the day when Kim Jong-il started working at the Workers’ Party of Korea in 1964.

June 29


Election Day (5)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-un was elected Chairman of the State Affairs Commission in 2016.

July 3


Strategic Armed Forces Day

Honors the day when the strategic army unit was set up in 1999.

July 8


Greatest National Memorial Day (1)

Honors the day when Kim Il-sung died in 1994.

July 10


Kim Hyong-jik’s birthday

Honors Kim Hyong-jik’s birthday,

father of Kim Il-sung (born in 1894).

July 12


Marine Sports Day


July 17


Marshal Day

Honors the day when Kim Jong-un received the title “Marshal of the Republic” in 2012.

July 31


National Memorial Day

Honors the day when Kang Ban-sok, mother of Kim Il Sung, died in 1932.

August 28



or Youth Day

Honors the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Korean Communist Youth League in 1927.

August 28


Navy Day

Honors the day when the first navy unit was set up in 1949.

September 22


National Memorial Day 

Honors the day when Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il-sung and mother of Kim Jong-il, died in 1949.

October 8


Election Day (6)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-il was elected General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 1997.

October 11


Sports Day


October 17


Day of Foundation of the Down-with Imperialism Union 

Honors the day when Kim Il-sung founded the Down-with Imperialism Union in 1926.

November 29


Air Force Day

Honors the day when the first air force unit set up in 1945.

December 17


Greatest National Memorial Day (2)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-il died in 2011.

December 24


Supreme Commander Day (1)

Honors the day when Kim Jong-il was appointed Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army in 1991.

December 24


Kim Jong-suk’s birthday 

Honors the birthday of Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il-sung and mother of Kim Jong-il (born in 1917).

December 30


Supreme Commander Day (2)


Honors the day when Kim Jong-un was appointed Supreme Commander of the armed forces of the DPRK in 2011.

Source: North Korea’s Calendar for the Year 2020, printed by the Foreign Languages Publishing House, DPRK


* Red colored public holidays on the calendar

**Type of holidays (I: Related to the Kim family or their political events; II: Related to national traditions; III: Related to international holidays; IV: Others)




Annex II: Foreign countries visited officially or informally by the Kim family 


Kim family

Details of countries visited (Years and times)

Kim Il Sung (Ruling period: 1948-1994)


China: 15 times –Years of visit: 1950, 1953, 1954, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991

Russia, former Soviet Union: 13 times -Years of visit: 1949, 1950, 1953, 1956 (3 times), 1957, 1959, 1961 (2), 1984 (2), 1986

Romania: 4 times -Years of visit: 1956, 1975, 1980, 1984

Bulgaria: 3 times -Years of visit: 1956, 1975, 1984

Yugoslavia: 3 times -Years of visit: 1975, 1980, 1984

Czech Republic, former Czechoslovakia: 2 times -Years of visit: 1956, 1984

East Germany: 2 times -Years of visit: 1956, 1984

Hungary: 2 times -Years of visit: 1956, 1984

Mongolia: 2 times -Years of visit: 1956, 1988

Poland: 2 times --Years of visit: 1956, 1984

Albania: 1 time -Year of visit: 1956

Algeria: 1 time -Year of visit: 1975

Indonesia: 1 time - Year of visit: 1965

Mauritania: 1 time - Year of visit: 1975

Vietnam: 1 time - Year of visit: 1958


Kim Jong-il (Ruling period: 1994-2011)


Before ruling

Russia: 1 time – Year of visit: 1959 (to accompany Kim Il-sung on official visit to the Soviet Union)

Indonesia: 1 time -Year of visit: 1965 (to accompany Kim Il-sung on official visit to Indonesia)

China: 1 time -Year of visit: 1983 (informal visit on the invitation by the Chinese Communist Party)


During ruling:

China: 8 times -Years of visit: 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2010, 2011 (2 times)

Russia: 3 times -Years of visit: 2001, 2002, 2011


Kim Jong-un (Ruling period: 2011 to present)

Before ruling: Studied in Bern, Switzerland (1998-2000)


During ruling:

China: 4 times -Years of visit: 2018 (3 times), 2019

Singapore: 1 time -Year of visit: 2018 (to hold the first summit with USA)

Vietnam: 1 time -Year of visit: 2019 (to hold the second summit with USA and on official visit to Vietnam)

Russia: 1 time -Year of visit: 2019


Source: Compiled by the author from media sources, including Yonhap Yearbook 2019.



[1] On September 27, 2010, Kim Jong-un was awarded the title of General of the Korean People's Army, and the following day, he was appointed as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea. This news gave a clue to believe that Kim Jong-un was Kim Jong-il’s successor.

[2] See annex I. This annex is based on a North Korean calendar for 2020.

[3] North Korea's political organizations consist mainly of the Workers Party of Korea and its affiliated organizations, such as the Youth League, the Women’s Union, the Children’s Union, the Federation of Trade Unions and the Farmers' Alliance.

[4] https://www.rfa.org/korean/in_focus/ne-hm-11252020070827.html

[5] Kim Jong-il is known to be born in Russia unlike his claim that he was born in Mount Baekdu.

[6] In North Korea, the term “Jae-po” is used with a pejorative nuance to designate Koreans who migrated from Japan.

[7] See annex II. This annex is based on media sources including Yonhap Yearbook 2019.

[8] In 2000 and onwards, North Korea was able to establish diplomatic relations with UK, Italy and other Western countries. As of January 1, 2021, North Korea has diplomatic relations with a total of 161 countries. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea (http://www.mofa.go.kr/www/wpge/m_4181/contents.do)