February 16, 2021

The Injustice of North Korea’s Hereditary Leadership Succession as Demonstrated by the History of Power Transfer from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il

Published on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s birthday, February 16, 2021

By Kim Myong, HRNK Contributor

Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

J.A. de Roo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

February 16 of each year is known as one of the most auspicious holidays in North Korea.[1] Kim Jong-il, who took the reins of power in this country after his father Kim Il-sung died, was born on this day. Under the hereditary rule of the Kim family, North Korea has become one of the cruelest modern slave states in the world. However, Kim Jong-il has been worshipped as “Gwang-myong-song” (Shining Star) by his people, and his birthday is called “Gwang-myong-song-jol” (Day of the Shining Star). Since 2011 when his son Kim Jong-un acceded to the throne upon his father’s death, this day has become even more important than April 15, also called the “Day of the Sun”, when Kim Il-sung was born.

This month, the entire country gets engulfed in a festive atmosphere to observe celebrations at the national level for “reviving” the ghost of the late dictator. The celebrations comprise: The Group Exploratory March to Mount Baekdu, known as a “holy” place of Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese activities; Oath-Taking Ceremony at Kim Jong-il’s Homeplace; Exhibition of Kimjongilia;[2] Pyongyang International Figure Skating Festival; and Worship at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lay in state, to name just a few. Outside of the country, North Korean diplomatic missions are busy publishing feature articles praising Kim Jong-il in local newspapers or organizing “friendly meetings” with pro-North Korean groups or individuals to watch feature films or deliberate on juche thought. Even though they may neglect their task to protect their own citizens in the host country, they aspire to faithfully perform the role of propaganda agents for the regime, for fear of being reprimanded by the capital in case of minor negligence or errors in their supreme leader’s propaganda.

On the very day of Kim Jong-il’s birth, the first pages of the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of the Korean Workers' Party, carry door-sized lengthy articles on his “revolutionary life and immortal achievements” as well as congratulatory messages sent by pro-North Korean organizations, such as the associations of Koreans living in Japan or China. And North Koreans spend the whole day participating in their routine organizational life like human robots—wreath laying at Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s statues as well as putting on and attending music performances or sports competitions.

My parents' generation devoted their life to establishing Kim Il-sung’s one-man rule and supporting the transfer of his power to his son, whereas the people of my generation, who were born and grew up as baby boomers after the end of the Korean War (1950–1953),[3] spent their childhood, adolescence, and the most prolific period in their life forging and cementing Kim Jong-il’s cult of personality and supporting his dictatorship. Should I have continued to live in the totalitarian state instead of leaving it once and for all, my children would still have been wasting the energy and passion of their precious youth for the young dictator Kim Jong-un. Since I could no longer bear passing down to my children the life of slavery deprived of human dignity and rights that my parents and I lived for two generations, I decided to escape this human hell in search for our lost freedoms and rights, taking with us from the homeland nothing but the memories of our past life from our homeland.

The hereditary rule of the Kim family is at the root of all kinds of misery and pain my fellow countrymen suffer in North Korea. Ending the one-family rule is a prerequisite for recovering their human rights and restoring peace on the Korean peninsula.[4]

The Absurd Ideological and Theoretical Basis to Legitimize the Hereditary Leadership Succession

The vast majority of countries in the world have opted for the republic as their form of government (see Fig. 1). Unlike the monarchy, in which the throne is usually inherited according to the order of succession within one royal family, the republic is based on the principle of having its head of state hold the sovereign power with a fixed term of office, elected directly or indirectly by the people. Today, many monarchies have turned into constitutional ones, to make their monarch a symbolic head of state with limited power and to grant the authority to govern to their parliament elected by direct votes and the prime minister chosen from a majority political party. Electing a head of state by power of the people constitutes the basis of a democratic nation.

Figure 1:

Distribution of United Nations member states by governmental form


Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_system_of_government

As reflected in its official name—that is, Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK—North Korea is legally a republic, not a monarchy, and its constitution does not allow the inheritance of power.[5]

However, from the early days of Kim Il-sung's governance back in 1948 to date, the North Korean constitution has always been used as a tool to support the Kim family regime’s hereditary one-man rule.

North Korea is based on the monolithic leadership system in which the “Great Leader” completely controls the Korean Workers' Party (KWP or the Party), the State, and the Military, which form the core governing bodies of the country.[6] The political rationale to justify the one-man rule began to be developed early in the 1950s and systematized in the 1960s. This is the so-called “Kim Il-sung Doctrine” comprising among others: the “Juche Idea”; the “Great Leader Theory”; and the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Party’s Monolithic Ideological System”.[7]

According to the Juche Idea, the popular masses, as the driving force of historical development, have endless power to transform nature and society as well as to shape their own destiny, but this power can only be used efficiently and to its full potential when they are commanded by a Leader who can present a revolutionary ideology and guide them along the right path. The Great Leader Theory defines the Leader as the top brain of the popular masses and as such, he or she occupies an absolute position and plays a decisive role in the historical development and revolutionary struggles of the working class. Furthermore, the theory stipulates that the popular masses should be firmly united with the Leader in terms of ideology and will and support the unique guidance of the Leader with loyalty. In addition, the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Party's Monolithic Leadership System, a fundamental law placed above the constitution and all other laws, and similar to the Decalogue or Ten Commandments, endows Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with God-like status and elaborates in a total of ten articles and 60 clauses the principles and tasks to ensure the hereditary rule of the Kim family (see annex I).

The Kim Il-sung doctrine was used as an ideological tool for purging all the opposing factions from within the KWP in the 1950s and 1960s, and for establishing Kim’s one-man rule in the country. Through the purging of various factions originating from the South Korean Workers’ Party, the Soviet Union, China, and Gapsan (a geographical area in the South Hamgyong Province), Kim Il-sung succeeded in assuming absolute power by the end of the 1960s, as a founder of the DPRK and the only Great Leader of North Koreans. Despite his attempt to be raised to God-like status, Kim Il-sung was also human, born with an expiration date. As he got older, the issue of the transfer of power came up to the surface. In North Korea, dominated by the Leader’s unique guidance, the transfer of power meant the replacement of the Leader. Therefore, the Kim Il-sung doctrine was further supplemented with the “Continuous Revolution Theory” and the “Leader's Successor Theory” with the aim of ensuring a smooth power transfer within the Kim family.

According to the Continuous Revolution Theory, the revolutionary cause pioneered by the Leader of the working class (meaning Kim Il-sung in this case) is a long-term project that cannot be completed in one generation. Thus, the revolution must continue across generations until it is completed. The Leader's Successor Theory clarifies that, in order to continue the revolutionary cause until its completion, the Leader’s Successor must be selected in a proper manner and that the Successor is required to be endowed with certain qualifications. The need for a good successor to the leader arose from the Soviet Union’s history, that carried out the first socialist revolution under Lenin's leadership to build a powerful state but ruined its socialist cause due to the failure to address leadership succession properly. The qualifications required of the Leader’s Successor were identified as follows: a) the Successor must be infinitely loyal to the Leader; b) be endowed with extraordinary ideological and theoretical knowledge, outstanding leadership, and noble communist virtues; and c) enjoy absolute dignity and authority among the population for his or her achievements and contributions.[8], [9] The legitimacy of the hereditary succession within the Kim family was established by the Kim Il-sung doctrine that implied that no one but a member of the Kim family could succeed Kim Il-sung. In reality, transferring power to one of his sons was an established fact to Kim Il-sung, who had already placed the KWP in his possession.

Characteristics of the Leadership Transfer to Kim Jong-il

In the North Korean constitution, state power is held by all the working people, including workers, peasants, soldiers, and working intellectuals.[10] However, as the country is under one-man rule and the hereditary succession is established for the Kim family, the national system has been proven to be a de facto monarchy, not a democracy-based republic. Nevertheless, the transfer of power from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, the first succession in the history of North Korea, took considerable time and effort to secure legitimacy in form and content.

In this succession process, Kim Il-sung seemed to be concerned about how he would be perceived by others as his leadership was not as absolute as Kim Jong-un’s today. He was also concerned that a number of his companions-in-arms who fought with him in Manchuria were very assertive on sensitive issues like succession. Moreover, this succession took place amid fierce competition between Kim Jong-il and his half-brothers, children of his stepmother Kim Song-ae, and, therefore, it was accompanied by Kim Jong-il’s pro-active efforts to obtain power rather than waiting until he receives it. Kim Jong-il himself had witnessed his father’s power struggle and learned how hard it was to seize power and keep it once obtained. The transition of power from Kim Il-sung to his eldest son Kim Jong-il had the following characteristics (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2: 

Timeline of Leadership Succession by Kim Jong-il, 1960–2000

First, from his early childhood, Kim Jong-il endeavored to catch the attention of his father in order to be considered as a strong candidate to succeed him.[11]

In 1953, while studying at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, he formed a “Research Team on the Biography of General Kim Il-sung” and launched a campaign among the students to learn about Kim Il-sung's revolutionary life. In 1956, when he was studying at Namsan Middle School, he led students to conduct an exploratory march to Mount Baekdu with the aim of making Kim Il-sung's anti-Japanese struggle the only historical tradition of the KWP. In the early 1960s, while he was studying at Kim Il-Sung University, Kim Jong-il accompanied his father in field visits to the economic and military sectors to learn about his leadership and help him exercise on-the-spot guidance.

Kim Jong-il, who started working at the Central Committee of the KWP in June 1964, made tremendous contributions to purging the Gapsan group, the last faction existing in the Party, during a KWP plenary meeting in May 1967. On this occasion, a campaign was launched to establish Kim Il-sung’s unique ideology inside the Party. While making his career in the Propaganda and Agitation Department, he guided the project to make films and operas based on the novels created during Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese struggle, such as "The Flower Girl", "The Sea of ​​Blood", and "The Fate of a Self-Defense Member.” In February 1974, he framed ​​Kim Il-sung’s ideas and theories as Kim Il-sung-ism and declared that the transformation of the whole society in accordance with Kim Il-sung-ism was an ultimate goal to be achieved by the KWP.

Even after he was designated as Kim Il-sung’s successor in the same year, he continued working to strengthen one-man rule for his father by launching new projects to educate people within the revolutionary traditions and spirits of Mount Baekdu. Satisfied with his work, Kim Il-sung concluded his leadership succession that dragged on for years by officially announcing Kim Jong-il as his only and final successor at the Sixth Congress of the KWP in 1980.

Second, Kim Jong-il established a strong power base for his leadership by removing all the forces that interfered during his succession.

Soon after, he was internally designated as his father’s successor in 1974, Kim Jong-il worked hard to establish his power base within the Party, the State, and the Military and created his cult of personality among the people. In particular, he mercilessly purged or eliminated all the forces that had complained or objected to him being the successor.

His stepmother, Kim Song-ae (second official wife of Kim Il-sung), who had been appointed as the President of the Korean Democratic Women's Alliance in 1969, exercised her power and influence to place her children and relatives in the key positions of the country and, with her aides, she obstructed Kim Jong-il’s designation as the successor. Some of the comrades-in-arms of Kim Il-sung very much disliked Kim Jong-il who, after losing his mother at a young age, was left alone to grow up in his own, without receiving proper education from his family. Considering that Kim Pyong-il, Kim Song-ae's eldest son, was more suitable to be his father’s successor, they naturally gathered around Kim Song-ae. Some historians speculated that Kim Yong-ju, the younger brother of Kim Il-sung and Director of the Organization and Guidance Department of the KWP until the early 1970s, had wished to succeed his brother, but they proved to be wrong. After his nephew’s designation as the successor, he left his public office and went into exile to Jagang Province with his family to disappear from the political scene. In the end, Kim Il-sung, who held the key in the nomination of his successor, made the final decision to designate Kim Jong-il as his successor rather than Kim Pyong-il, who was still young in every aspect—politically and age-wise—and to follow the rule of primogeniture.

When Kim Jong-il became the successor, he classified his stepmother Kim Song-ae, her children, and relatives as “Gyot-ga-ji” (side branches) and dismissed them from public office.[12] Afterwards, all her children were sent abroad one by one, and Kim Song-ae was placed under house arrest doing almost nothing until she died in 2014.[13] In addition, all those who had been opposed to Kim Jong-il's succession or who followed Kim Song-ae as part of her “club” were deported, transferred to the remote provinces, or sent to kwan-li-so political prison camps. Among them were many high-profile people, including a DPRK vice-president and a secretary of the KWP.[14] Later on, Kim Yong-ju returned alone to Pyongyang with the position of vice-president towards the end of his life, but many others were never seen again.

By the mid-1970s, Kim Jong-il was already called the "Central Party” or "Dear Leader," and had feature songs composed for him, such as "Song to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il" and "Long Live Dear Leader Kim Jong-il". These songs were distributed and memorized by the people, to be sung at national events, meetings, and parades. In addition, he launched a national campaign to establish his unique leadership in parallel to the campaign to establish his father’s unique ideology. As a middle school student at the time, I took the lead in the school-wide campaign to uphold Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader” and establish his leadership.

Third, beginning in 1974, North Korea entered a duumvirate for 20 years, where the two Kims ruled the country together with shared power. That gave Kim Jong-il sufficient time to lay the groundwork for becoming the most powerful man in the land.

At the beginning of the duumvirate, Kim Il-sung wanted his son to concentrate mainly on the internal affairs of the KWP, while he continued to take care of the State’s affairs. After the Sixth Congress of KWP, he passed him two of his military positions—i.e., Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army and Chairman of the National Defense Commission—while continuing to hold his other positions until his death in 1994, such as General Secretary of the KWP, Chairman of the KWP Military Committee and President of the DPRK. However, as time passed, Kim Il-sung felt so weak that he gradually released his powers on the Party, the State, and the Military to Kim Jong-il, to spend the rest of his life in peace, keeping only the title of “Head of State.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that by the mid-1980s, all the power for the State administration fell into the hands of Kim Jong-il, who had succeeded in seizing absolute power by then. As Kim Jong-il was in charge of the Organization and Guidance Department, which is like the “yolk” of the KWP in the one-party state, his words became absolute law and command that no one could dare to contradict or challenge. His handwritten or verbal instructions and guidelines outnumbered those from Kim Il-sung, and this gap between the real power of the father and the son widened considerably as time passed.

When the State agencies reported to the highest instances, they prepared two copies of reports—one copy was addressed to the Kumsusan Presidential Palace, where Kim Il-sung was, and the other copy was addressed to the Three-Story Building of the KWP, where Kim Jong-il was. This dual reporting system finally changed into a unified reporting system for Kim Jong-il, who filtered the reports himself to be sent to Kim Il-sung “to reduce his father’s workload and document burdens and ensure his health and longevity.” He made final decisions on his own on the key issues of the Party, the State, and the Military, and later informed his father of a few selected issues. Of course, this did not mean that Kim Jong-il handled the vast amount of documents alone. He ran a super-sized cabinet assisting him in handling the workload, which was given the authority to approve most of the documents on his behalf. If the KWP was in Kim Il-sung’s possession in the 1960s, it turned into a complete monopoly for Kim Jong-il in the 1970s and onwards.

It is noteworthy that, while trying to seize all the power from his father, Kim Jong-il did not want to exercise power in one field: the Cabinet responsible for the national economy.[15] Although Kim Jong-il majored in political economy at Kim Il-sung University, he did not have any knowledge or experience in economic management, nor did he have a desire to acquire the responsibility of running the national economy. When he landed inside the KWP, his work was limited to the fields of ideological propaganda projects to establish the leadership system and guiding the sector of arts and culture, mainly focusing on producing films and operas. If he did anything for the national economy, it was done through his guidance on the Campaign of the Three Revolutions,[16] and the launch of mass labor mobilization campaigns such as “The 70-Day Battle”, “The 100-Day Battle” and other such initiatives to attain the planned targets of economic development in the shortest period of time possible. Kim Il-sung is known to have confessed at a meeting with the Cabinet high-level officials that "the Secretary of the Organization and Guidance Department (which refers to Kim Jong-il) is a stranger to the economy."

Under Kim Jong-il’s Leadership, the Korean Workers' Party Turned into a Gangster Group That Dominates and Rules above the State

If any middle-aged North Korean is asked, “Whom do you hate the most in the Kim family?” They won’t hesitate to answer: “Kim Jong-il.” North Korea was ruled by Kim Jong-il for 17 and a half years after his father’s death, and for nearly 38 years from the day he began exercising real power as his father’s successor. He may not have been hated so much if he had started from scratch like his father who had founded the country after its liberation from Japanese rule. On the contrary, he was given an unlimited mandate to rule a relatively wealthy country, endowed with abundant natural resources, that my parents’ generation had rebuilt out of the devastation of the Korean War with their blood, sweat, and tears.

A few authoritarian countries, such as Singapore, have succeeded in accomplishing economic prosperity and enabling their people to lead a wealthy and happy life. My parents’ generation may have accepted the transmission of power to Kim Jong-il even if they did not agree with succession itself, in the hope that their country could be a second Singapore one day to come. However, the North Korean people have come to conclude that any hereditary rule by one family would lead the country and nation to total failure and ruin.

The KWP was more “privatized” under Kim Jong-il than ever before and turned into a gangster group ruling above the State. This was the greatest harm Kim Jong-il brought onto his people during his governance. Some people assumed that his Songun (military first) governance had put the Military before the Party, based on a lack of understanding of the North Korean system. North Korea has always been a one-party state under the three successive rules of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, in which the KWP dominates and rules above all, including the State and the Military. In this society, the Party, like its rulers, gets more vicious when generations change. After all, a fish rots from the head down. If the leader of a group, such as the KWP, becomes more violent, members of the group will be equally violent because they could not survive otherwise. On the basis of what I have seen, heard, and experienced in North Korea as well as the historical facts already known to the world, I would like to summarize how the KWP turned into a violent gangster group under Kim Jong-il's leadership.

First, by changing the decision-making process inside the KWP—from the Political Bureau-centered system to the Secretariat-centered system—Kim Jong-il made completely reshuffled the Party’s leadership, which was at least formally democratic before he took the power, to establish his own one-man leadership.

After Kim Jong-il was designated as the successor in 1974, all decision-making powers on key policies, guidelines, and personnel issues began to be transferred to the Secretariat and its specialized departments, which made the Political Bureau and the Central Committee’s Plenary “voting machines” meant to pass all the decisions made by the Secretariat.[17] The Organization and Guidance Department led by Kim Jong-il was at the core of the Secretariat and exercised full power on the most important issues. This meant, in other words, that Kim Jong-il’s one-man dictatorship was being established in the KWP, giving him the authority to change the policy directions according to his thoughts and will, and nominate his “favorite people” in important positions.

The KWP’s leadership is exercised mainly through two functions: (1) guidance on the life of the Party members; and (2) guidance on policy implementation by the state agencies. The former is then divided into guidance on organizational life and ideological life, which is under the responsibility of the Organization and Guidance Department and the Propaganda and Agitation Department who control all the Party organizations at the lower levels. The latter is under the responsibility of other specialized departments of the KWP, which are linked to each sector of the Cabinet or the State affairs. From the mid-1980s, when Kim Jong-il seized all the power within the KWP, policy proposals prepared by the specialized departments were submitted by their secretaries to Kim Jong-il for final approval and were implemented without going through the approval process of the Central Committee’s Plenary or its Political Bureau. In terms of power rankings, Kim Jong-il was a de facto Number Two after his father.

Kim Jong-il did not want to hand over his position of the Secretary of the Organization and Guidance Department to other people even after he was elected the General Secretary of the KWP after Kim Il-sung died. This was due to the fact that he had used this position to exercise full power that placed himself above his father.

Second, once he took the reins of the Party, Kim Jong-il expanded and reorganized the specialized departments inside the KWP, especially those in charge of economic issues, so that he could take control of the whole process of formulation and implementation of national economic policies. By doing so, he placed economic interest projects of the Cabinet under the KWP’s control and greatly increased the Party’s finances.

Until the mid-1960s, the North Korean Cabinet, of which Kim Il-sung was Prime Minister at the time, and its affiliated ministries and economic institutions exercised relative independence, and there were only a few economic departments inside the KWP. However, in the era of Kim Jong-il's rule, the Party was endowed with a set of economic departments—including the Planning and Financing Department, the Light Industry Department, the Agriculture Department, the Defense Industry Department, and the Finance Accounting Department. In addition, he set up a number of departments in charge of affairs with the South—including the United Front Department, the Operations Department, the External Investigations and Intelligence Department, renamed “Office 35”, and the External Liaison Department.[18] As the Party took control of economic affairs of the country and the Party-led State system was established, the KWP became a State-within-a-State with all the power in his hands. At the center of it all was Kim Jong-il, the Secretary of the Organization and Guidance Department (see annex II).

By founding the DPRK in 1948, Kim Il-sung established a centralized system that operated based on a planned economy. In North Korea, private ownership of the means of production is not allowed, and all the elements of economic activities—such as the allocation of labor force, the distribution of natural resources, production and distribution of goods and services, and pricing—are planned and executed by the State.

The Cabinet is supposed to be the command tower of all economic activities with the State Planning Commission at its center. The Commission coordinates and controls all these economic activities. Kim Il-sung worked as Prime Minister of the Cabinet for 24 years spanning from 1948 to 1972, making desperate efforts for a soft landing of North Korea’s planned economic system. By amending the old constitution of 1948 into a socialist constitution in 1972, he established a dual State governance system in which the State power is shared between the President of DPRK and the Prime Minister of the Cabinet, and he took himself the position of President until he died in 1994.

Kim Jong-il's entry into the KWP in 1964 was a starting point for transforming the North Korean Cabinet responsible for the country’s planned economy into a completely vegetative cabinet that fell into a coma. The Party took over the Cabinet’s role as the economic command tower. The KWP’s specialized departments were deeply involved in the formulation and execution of economic policies and national production plans, completely ignoring the relative independence of the Cabinet. The Party's guidance on economic management activities was realized through the Party committees of state-run enterprises specializing in production.[19] Under the Party’s guideline that the general manager, the Party secretary, and the chief engineer should form a trinity for economic management of the enterprise, the Party secretaries' interference into economic management issues became a norm to the point where they used their political power to punish or replace the general managers or the chief engineers who did not obey them. The administrative orders from the general manager and the orders from the Party committee overlapped in many cases, which resulted in confusion in the fields of production. However, when production failed to be normalized, the responsibility for economic mismanagement fell on the shoulders of the general manager and the chief engineer. Still, the interference of the KWP in the Cabinet’s economic activities continues as of today. What has changed in Kim Jong-un’s time is that such interventions are being carried out in a subtle and disguised way in order to create a trap and transfer the responsibility for economic failure to the Cabinet. The Cabinet is formally put forward as an economic command tower, but in reality, it is nothing but a string puppet in the hands of the KWP. The Cabinet is not in a position to do anything on its own to fundamentally change the country’s economic structure and bring about economic prosperity through reform and an open-door policy.

Not only did the dualized system for control of the national economy by the KWP and the Cabinet lead to inefficient and irrational management, but it also caused the ruin of the State’s finances and the national economy. Most of the economic interest projects that earned foreign currency by exporting resources were transferred from the Cabinet to the KWP as well as to the special power agencies—military, public security, and the judiciary—which were led by the senior high-profile executives personally close to Kim Jong-il, who jumped into the economic interest competition to gain their own shares. Finally, the Cabinet became a paper tiger, after foreign currency sources were acquired by others. The special finances owned by the special power agencies existed above the State finance owned by the Cabinet, and the Party finances dominated above all. All the foreign currency earned in exchange for selling natural resources flowed into the vaults of the special finances and the Party finances. Office 39, located at the center of the KWP’s finances, earned money from legal and illegal activities—including drug sales, counterfeiting, arms exports, and smuggling as well as economic aid from South Korea—to financially support the development of weapons of mass destruction, the operations in the South, Kim Jong-il’s governance as well as the super luxurious living standards and entertainment expenses of the Kim family.[20]

In order to secure new sources of foreign currency for the Cabinet, the North Korean authorities enacted the “DPRK Law on Equity Joint Venture” in 1984 to create joint ventures with foreign investors,[21] but they failed to earn enough money due to the lack of enabling investment conditions—including political closure, high risk, and poor social infrastructure. The national economy, which heavily depended on the raw materials and fuels imported from abroad, almost came to a halt due to the depletion of its foreign currency reserves, and it reached a point of collapse when the socialist markets of Eastern Europe were dismantled in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the “second economy” in North Korea, which supplies arms, military equipment, and munitions of war to safeguard the regime and the permanent rule of the Kim family, was fully operational without interruption to make Kim Jong-il’s slush fund accounts overflow with money.[22]

Oblivious to the country's economic ruin and to his people starving to death due to the sudden collapse of the national food distribution system, which had been maintained for decades prior to his rule, Kim Jong-il was just anxious to build his own kingdom within the KWP. All he wanted was to waste precious foreign currency earned by his laborers to cement his power base. To him, the people were nothing more than pebbles on a sidewalk.

Third, Kim Jong-il transformed the KWP into a playboy group that kills time in backrooms.

The political skills of Kim Jong-il, or his “human governance technique,” can be characterized by: a) favoritism; b) gifting; and c) drinking parties. When Kim Jong-il first entered the political scene in North Korea, he had few close friends. Around him were only a few old politicians of Kim Il-sung’s age, who flattered him because he was a potential crown prince in the royal family, and a handful of alumni from Kim Il-sung University, who helped him in his academic life. His father had lots of old comrades-in-arms from the Manchurian guerilla days, on whom he relied to build his power base after liberation. However, Kim Jong-il had none of that. Social life within the KWP was initially a great challenge, as there were only a few new comrades who could support him.

In a series of books released by the KWP Publishing House, titled “For Illuminating the Juche Era,” there is a collection of memoirs written by the people who worked in various sectors of the Party, Government, and Military in the 1960s and 1970s, and had personal relationships with Kim Jong-il. These stories tell us that, at the time, the young dictator tried to gather a lot of people around him, using the power of his position in the KWP and his family background as Kim Il-sung’s son, even before his nomination as the successor. Later, many of them became close members of his “cronies’ club” and got promoted, assuming important positions in the Party, the State, and the Military. He classified the members of his club into different groups—people who understand him very well and know how to execute his wishes, people who are smart enough to know how to please him under different circumstances, people who are strong drinkers, and people who know how to lighten the atmosphere of drinking parties as well as people who are talented in singing and dancing. He knew well the strengths and weaknesses of each member. He assigned difficult tasks to good workers, invited strong drinkers to his parties, and wanted to be accompanied by the people who lightened his mood when he was embarking on his on-the-spot guidance tours.

Kim Jong-il used to offer gifts to his people on various occasions. By doing so, he wanted to gain their favor and manipulate them as he wished, to get support from the high-ranking officials in the Party, the State, and the Military. Of course, giftpolitik had existed already during the time of Kim Il-sung, too. But the type and scope of gifts offered by Kim Il-sung were limited to groceries and domestically-produced daily necessities, to help relieve them from the concerns of daily life. Contrary to his father, Kim Jong-il's gifts were hardly domestic products. They included Japanese groceries, and expensive items such as electronics, cosmetics, watches, and diamond rings. These were imported by the “Man-gyong-bong-ho” ship, which traveled regularly between Japan and North Korea. There were also high-priced luxury gifts of different types imported from Italy, Switzerland, the UK, and other European countries.

It is noteworthy in his giftpolitik that people of the same rank in the KWP did not receive the same gifts in terms of content, quality, or quantity, and each of them did not know what the others received, as the content, quality, and quantity of gifts received by each person were kept confidential. However, since they were living in the same community of high-class apartments in Changgwang-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, they could at least notice how big the gift boxes were for other people even if they did not know what was in those boxes. From the size and quantity of gift boxes that others received, they could understand their de facto individual position in the mind of Kim Jong-il. By differentiating people in his gifting politics, Kim Jong-il tried to make them greedier and stimulate their desire to become more loyal to him. The closer they were to the heart of the Dear Leader, the more special treatment and expensive gifts they received.

Kim Jong-il's gifting for his close “exclusive club” members and high-ranking officials did not stop there. A supply system for their families delivering food, groceries and other necessities was established inside the KWP, under the responsibility of the Finance and Accounting Department. Such supplies were provided on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis depending on the positions held by the respective officials. The contents of the supplies were kept confidential to the general public. However, the secret of these supplies was gradually exposed to the outside through their family members. The supplies included rare seafood from the Korean seas, rare natural medicinal plants, including decades-old wild ginseng, and natural energizers, including aphrodisiacs, such as the fresh genitals of animals to keep them sexually active at an old age.

The degree to which Kim Jong-il liked women and indulged in a prodigal night life was already revealed to the world by many witnesses, including his former chef, Kenji Fujimoto.[23] Almost all the people in North Korea are aware today of the responsibility assumed by Division No. Five of the KWP Organization and Guidance Department. This Division plays the same role as the Joseon Dynasty’s “Nae-myong-bu”, to select court ladies, including the masseuses, stewards, and bodyguards for the Kim family as well as entertaining ladies who were responsible for the dictator’s night life. The origin of “Ki-pum-jo” (Entertainment Group, also known as the “Joy Brigades”) was the special performance team earlier organized for Kim Il-sung under the name of “Man-su-mu-gang-jo” (Longevity Group), and composed of high-profile singers, dancers, and bands from the Mansudae Arts Troup, which was among the best performing arts groups in North Korea at the time. While guiding the work in the culture and arts fields in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kim Jong-il set up this Group to entertain his old father. Kim Jong-il, who liked drinking and often organized parties with his close aides, felt that he needed a performance team for himself. He ordered Division No. Five to set up his own performance team, comprising teenage girls selected from all over the country.

“The taste of whiskey is not in its brand nor in the accompanying snack, but it is in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is in women.” Kim Jong-il, who made this saying into a motto of his parties, brought his own entertainment girls, who were not professional artists, to his parties. The North Koreans who got to be aware of Kim Jong-il's depraved night life called his performance team the “Entertaining Group” behind his back, as opposed to Kim Il-sung's performance team called the "Longevity Group."

In fear that his night life would be known to the people, Kim Jong-il asked his party invitees to not be accompanied by their drivers when they came to the party venue. His invitees, who drank a lot at Kim Jong-il's party overnight, had to drive drunk to go back home in the early morning. At the time, the Rodong Shinmun often carried the obituaries of the high-ranking officials who died in car accidents, and people could count how often Kim Jong-il's drinking parties were held. Kim Jong-il's prodigal night life continued even in the 1990s, while people were starving to death and corpses were piling up, until he collapsed from a stroke in 2008.

The Pseudo-Religious Group Who Believed in the Kim Il-Sung Doctrine Is Being Disbanded

When I was born in North Korea in the 1960s, the first sentence I learned in my language was “Thank you, dear Father Marshal Kim Il-sung!” In my childhood, I said this out loud most often, any time in my school days—before eating snacks at the nursery and kindergarten or beginning classes at primary or middle schools. We stood upright in front of Kim Il-sung’s portrait hung up high on the front wall and recited it after our teacher before beginning our activities. Not knowing what to thank Kim Il-sung for, this gesture was taken for granted as part of our daily life.

My parents’ generation had been born in the 1920s–1930s during Japanese colonial rule and knew how painful life was when their homeland was lost to the foreign colonizers. Upon liberation, they felt grateful to Kim Il-sung, who raised their status to “masters of the country” by undertaking the land reform and a series of other democratic reforms. They remained blindly loyal to his leadership until the last moment of their life. On their last breath, however, they quietly confessed to us that life under the rule of the KWP had in no way been better than under Japanese rule. They lived in two social systems—that is, the semi-feudal and semi-capitalist system ruled by Japan up to liberation and the communist regime ruled by Kim Il-sung. They experienced the strengths and weaknesses of both systems.

On the other hand, my generation was brought up when socialism had already been established in North Korea.[24]From day one, we received brainwashing education and believed that Kim Il-sung was a God-like being we had to follow for our entire life. We were in the most sensitive and vulnerable age group in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, when the indoctrination supporting Kim Il-sung’s personality cult was in full swing in North Korea throughout our life, including education, literature, movies, and music. Our brain was injected with Kim Il-sung’s personality cult and our hearts were filled with blind loyalty to the Great Leader. We were ready to give up our lives anytime for him. The North Korean authorities isolated us from the outside world and spoiled our pure and innocent spirit with the Juche Idea, the essence of Kim Il-sung’s doctrine.

The North Korean authorities tried hard to possess our souls, but they could not completely ensnare our free spirits. From a certain point in our life, we, who so far had depended on Kim Il-sung as if he had been our God, woke up to doubt the social system in North Korea. Our minds and beliefs were shaken by our own life experience full of contradictions and information from the outside world. One question that bothered me all the time since childhood was this question: “If we lived in the world’s ideal regime, why weren’t we allowed to see, hear or experience the outside world, including capitalism, to compare ourselves to others?” I naturally guessed that there was something they wanted to hide and they did not want us to know about. Later, my exposure to the outside world helped me answer that question.

In the early 1990s, when socialist countries in Eastern Europe collapsed one after the other, and even China, a long-time ally of North Korea, took the path of reform and open-door policies, and established diplomatic relations with South Korea,[25] Kim Jong-il felt a sense of isolation. He published his works “Our Socialism Centered on the Popular Masses is Invincible”[26] and “Socialism is a Science,”[27] preaching that North Korean socialism was superior, in an attempt to block the mental deprivation and widespread agitation among the people. At the same time, he took extreme measures to stop TV broadcasting of all Chinese and old Russian films that were once allowed to some extent. However, the more Kim Jong-il tried to suppress people’s aspirations for freedom and to cover their eyes and ears, the more desire for freedom erupted in their minds and the thirstier they became for information from the outside world (see Diagram 1).

Diagram 1:

Interaction of Multiple Factors Affecting Human Behavioral Outcomes

In North Korean society, where the authorities decide how to shape education and the sociopolitical environment, information from the outside world and personal life experience are determinant factors of behavioral outcomes.


Source: Adapted from the Cognitive Learning Theory by the Peak Performance Center

Most people of my generation, who once fanatically believed the Kim Il-Sung doctrine, no longer believe in it today. The economic hardship and famine, also known as the “Arduous March” that hit the whole country in the mid-1990s, taught them a noble lesson in life: Nothing would be more foolish than believing once again the Leader, the Party, and the State. Death is a better alternative to believing them.

Nine million people, accounting for 35 percent of the total population of North Korea, were born after Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. Of these, 3.4 million, or 38 percent, were born after Kim Jong-il died in 2011.[28] They have never seen one or both of them, and they have not been ruled by either of them. In addition, they have learned from life experience that they can only rely on the market to survive over trusting the Party and the State. How could they be convinced that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are great leaders who built a human paradise in this country?

I can say for sure that today's North Korea is no longer the same pseudo-religious group that once believed in the Kim Il-Sung doctrine. If the tears shed by the North Korean people in 1994 upon Kim Il-sung’s death contained a little sincerity, their tears in 2011 when Kim Jong-il died were not sincere at all. Rather, these tears contained mixed feelings of resentment for the late dictator, who had enjoyed alone for so many years all the wealth of the country while impoverishing and ruining his people, and of hope that the young leader would be somewhat different from his father.


North Korea has been put under the dictatorial and incompetent rule of Kim Il-sung’s family for three generations in a row. The current dictator, Kim Jong-un, far exceeds his predecessors in terms of brutality and violence. After experiencing his dictatorship for over nine years, the North Korean people have abandoned any expectation or hope in their future and have realized that the only way out is regime change.

One of the things that I envied the most in the Free World is the right of citizens to freely express their will by casting ballots. I am genuinely fascinated by the beauty of democratic states that allow citizens to elect by democratic means their preferred candidates as statesmen or representatives or dismiss them if they failed to meet their expectations.

North Korea should no longer be ruled by any member of the Kim family. The old hereditary system established by Kim Il-sung must end and be replaced with a new system that will allow North Korean citizens to elect a leader according to their free will and choice in order to realize social and democratic changes by themselves. Myself, I will contribute the little strength that I have and my limited capacity to this cause.

Annex I:

Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Party’s Monolithic Leadership System [29]

(Short version)

In order to honor forever our great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, to remain loyal to them as well as to inherit and complete the causes of Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism under the Party’s guidance, we must firmly adhere to the following Ten Principles aimed to Establish the Monolithic Leadership System of the Party:
  1. We must dedicate our life to the struggle aimed to transform the whole society in accordance with the requirements of the Kim Il-sung-ism and Kim Jong-il-ism;
  2. We must hold high the great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as eternal leaders of our Party and people, and as the Sun of Juche;
  3. We must sanctify and defend to our death the supreme authority of the great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and the authority of the Party;
  4. We must equip ourselves with the revolutionary ideology of the great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and its ensuing guidelines and policies of the Party;
  5. We must follow every teaching from the great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and implement unconditionally the guidelines and policies of the Party;
  6. We must strengthen once for all the ideological and moral cohesion and the revolutionary unity of the Party, centered on the supreme leader;
  7. We must learn from the examples of the great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to possess a high intellectual and moral qualification, a revolutionary working manner, and a people-centered working style;
  8. We must value the political life we were given by the Party and the great leaders, and repay their confidence and consideration with due political awareness and high scores of work performance;
  9. We must establish within the whole Party, the whole country and the entire army a strong organizational rule for moving forward all together under the monolithic leadership of the Party.
  10. We must inherit across generations and complete to the end the revolutionary cause of Juche and the revolutionary cause of Son-gun (military first), pioneered by the great leader Kim Il-sung and advanced by both comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
All the officials, Party members and workers must establish thoroughly the monolithic leadership system of the Party, holding high the great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as eternal leaders of our Party and people, and vigorously advancing on the path of independence, the path of Son-gun, and the path of socialism under the leadership of the Party. As a result, we must complete to the end the revolutionary cause of Juche and the revolutionary cause of Songun, pioneered in the Mount Baekdu.

Annex II:

Specialized Department System of the Korean Workers' Party’s Secretariat under Kim Jong-il’s Rule, from the 1960s to the 2000s

* Doesn’t exist anymore today.  

(1) Renamed “Defense Industry Department”.

(2) Renamed “Economic Department”.

(3) Merged into the Office 39.

(4) Also known as “Office 35”, this was moved to the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

(5) Moved to the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

(6) Moved to the Cabinet.

(7) Renamed “Military Political Affairs Department”.

(8) Abolished after the execution of Jang Song-taek and re-established under the new name “Justice Department”.

[1] Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s holiday is likely to be celebrated in a reduced format.

[2] Kimjongilia is a new perennial begonia named after Kim Jong-il by a Japanese botanist in 1988.

[3] In North Korea, people born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s are referred to as “baby boomers.”

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all content in this article is based on the author’s knowledge and life experience in North Korea.

[5] According to the DPRK Socialist Constitution, amended in 2019, the chairman of the State Affairs Commission, who represents the DPRK, should be elected with a five-year term of office by the Supreme People's Assembly.

[6] In North Korea, the State (executive branch) includes the Cabinet in charge of economic and socio-cultural development, and the four special power agencies - Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of State Security, and Ministry of Social Security - in charge of diplomacy, national security and defense. Kim Il-sung was Prime Minister of the Cabinet until December 1972. Since then, the Kim family members have no longer assumed the responsibility of the Cabinet.

[7] The "Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Party’s Monolithic Ideological System”, published in 1974, has been amended in 2013 under the new name of "Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Party’s Monolithic Leadership System".

[8] The third qualification implies that any successor’s qualifications have to be verified by the people. However, since the people are not in a position to elect directly a successor, this is just meaningless rhetoric.

[9] The need for a successor who inherits and completes the revolutionary cause implies that he or she should not be the same generation as the previous leader.

[10] Chapter 1, Article 4 of the DPRK Socialist Constitution.

[11] Based on the North Korean version of Kim Jong-il's Revolutionary Activities.

[12] By calling them “side branches,” Kim Jong-il wanted to make himself the only “original branch” of the Kim family, within the Baekdu bloodline.

[13] Kim Song-ae's eldest son, Kim Pyong-il, was sent to Yugoslavia as assistant military attaché in 1979, and continued his diplomatic career as DPRK ambassador for various countries, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, and the Czech Republic, until he was repatriated in 2019. Her second son, Kim Yong-il, was sent to Germany in 1995 as councilor and died in 2000. Her daughter, Kim Gyong-jin, is known to have lived abroad for a long time with her husband, who was appointed as DPRK ambassador to the Czech Republic and Austria, until repatriating in 2020.

[14] Kim Dong-gyu, vice-president of the DPRK, was accused for having already surrendered to Japan during his anti-Japanese struggle, and spying for Japan using his high-ranking positions.

[15] As mentioned below, Kim Jong-il's power over the Cabinet was exercised in an indirect manner by controlling the specialized departments of the KWP.

[16] Kim Il-sung elaborated that communism can be achieved through strengthening the people’s power organizations and implementing the Three Revolutions—ideological, technical, and cultural. Earlier on, Lenin defined that communism was Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country (symbol of industrialization).

[17] Korea Institute for National Unification KINU “Research Series 11-4: A Comprehensive Study on Changes in the Organizational Status and Culture by Sector in North Korea”.

[18] When Kim Jong-un appeared on the political scene in 2009, the departments in charge of affairs with the South, except the Unified Front Department, were transferred under the People's Army Reconnaissance General Bureau or the Cabinet.

[19] Economic enterprises were classified into four categories – i.e. special, first, second and third enterprises - depending on the size of production and a Party committee existed in each enterprise.

[20] In the 1970s and onwards, the Office 38 and the Office 39 existed within the KWP to create a slush fund necessary for the luxurious living of the Kim family and financing Kim Jong-il's rule. The former earned foreign currency mainly through the operation of domestic hotels, foreign currency stores, and tourist facilities, while the latter earned foreign currency by exporting domestic resources – i.e. underground natural resources, ground and fishery resources. The Office 38 has recently been merged into the Office 39.

[21] Democratic People's Republic of Korea Joint Venture Act, 1984. Available at: https://www.tongilnews.com/bbs/view.html?idxno=275594&sc_category=1

[22] The “Committee for the Second Economy” overseeing all the transactions of the North Korean military economy was established in the early 1970s under the KWP. It originated from the Ministry of Machinery Industry No. Two that existed under the Cabinet in the 1960s after Kim Il-sung advanced a policy line to develop simultaneously the civil and military economies at a KWP meeting in 1966.  In North Korea, the national economy under the Cabinet’s responsibility is unofficially called the “First Economy” and the economy under Office 39’s responsibility is called the “Third Economy”.

[23] Through his memoir "I Was Kim Jong-il's Chef" published in 2003, Kenji Fujimoto informed the world of Kim Jong-il's luxurious life based on his own experience.

[24] In the post-war period, Kim Il-sung created agricultural cooperatives, carried out socialist reforms of productive relationships and the Chollima Movement, and, in August 1958, declared the establishment of the socialist system.

[25] South Korea and China established Ambassador-level diplomatic relations on August 24, 1992, after the establishment of the Trade Representative Offices in 1991.

[26] Based on the dialogue of Kim Jong-il with the KWP senior officials on May 5, 1991.

[27] Published in Rodong Shinmun on November 1, 1994.

[28] Estimated on the basis of the demographic data from United Nations Population Prospects 2019.

[29] Translated by the author from the original Korean version.