Cult of personality: a situation in which a public figure (such as a political leader) is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved. —Merriam Webster
North Koreans have lived under a cult of personality for decades. It is assumed by analysts that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un himself believes in his own demigod myth. Let’s look at how Kim grew up.
Kim Jong-un’s early childhood is a mystery. His exact birth year is unknown. Most experts believe he is in his mid-30s.
Few images and information exist of Kim Jong-un as a young child. His maternal aunt Ko Yong-suk, who defected to the US in 1998, described him as a short-tempered and intolerant child.
Rumors abound that Kim Jong-un began drinking and smoking at a young age. He reportedly attended school in Switzerland in his teen years, but even that has never been officially confirmed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Classmates from Switzerland describe him as quiet, obsessed with basketball and action movies, with little interest in politics.
For a while, it appeared as though Kim Jong-un would be allowed to live a life of leisure. But after his education abroad abruptly ended, Kim Jong-un received military training at Kim Il-sung Military University. His older brother, Kim Jong-chul, was not favored to take over the country due to his father’s dislike of his “effeminate nature.”
An older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, had been the heir apparent in the late 1990s, until he fell out of favor with the regime when he was detained in Japan for using a fake passport. Kim Jong-nam was critical of the North Korean government and had been an advocate of economic reform.
In the early 2000s, Kim Jong-un disappeared from the public eye. Rumors surfaced that he had undergone plastic surgery to look more like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Today, Jong-un sports a portly figure, pudgy face, and similar hairstyle to his grandfather. These changes were likely made to assure North Koreans that Kim Jong-un would bring them prosperity—like his grandfather did.
Kim Jong-un’s grooming for succession intensified in 2008 when his father, Kim Jong-il, began having health problems. In September 2010, he was promoted to a four-star general and soon thereafter began appearing by his father’s side at public events.
The training was short-lived due to Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. In April 2012, Kim Jong-un acquired several official titles: first secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Solidifying His Status
Soon after rising to power, Kim Jong-un began conducting nuclear and ballistic missile tests, upsetting the country’s close neighbors and the United States. Not all the tests were successful, and some reports may have been outright propaganda lies—such as the claim to have developed a hydrogen bomb. But they have been a powerful show of force against South Korea and the US, pushing tensions to an all-time high.
Kim Jong-un has shown an unwillingness to take advice from those around him, including those who advised his father and his grandfather. He has ordered the execution of several top officials since taking power. Two of the most significant executions were his uncle and more recently, his half-brother.
Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle through marriage, was director of the Ministry of Administration of the Korean Worker’s Party and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. He had overseen economic reform, but may have also lined his pockets during his time in power.
Jang Song-thaek’s alleged corruption led to Kim Jong-un accusing him of treason, which led to his execution by firing squad in 2013.
In February 2017, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was murdered in Malaysia by two women suspected of being agents of the North Korean regime. Suspicions have arisen that Kim Jong-un ordered his half-brother murdered because he was afraid Jong-nam could become a rival for power in North Korea.
To cement Kim Jong-un as the supreme leader, officials have introduced the history of Kim Jong-un as an official school subject, a three year-long subject. Additionally, a monument in Kim Jong-un’s honor will be erected later this year on Mount Paektu, the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsula. Institutions and family households are all required to display Kim Jong-un’s portrait.
Paranoia and Extravagance
Paranoia is a key personality trait of Kim Jong-un. He is said to be terrified of assassination attempts by his enemies.
According to South Korean intelligence, the young dictator is afraid of attacks on his vehicle, so he travels at dawn and changes cars often. He has significantly reduced his public appearances within the last year. It’s said that Kim Jong-un has special workers inspect every fruit and vegetable he and his family eats for fear of poisoning.
In May 2017, following another missile test, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley attributed the tests to Kim Jong-un being in a “state of paranoia.” There have even been reports of an underground tunnel for Kim Jong-un to escape to Jagang Province in China, if ever needed.
While Kim Jung-un may be paranoid, he isn’t afraid of enjoying the spoils of his rule. He has an extravagant lifestyle: lavish compounds, luxury jets, expensive ski resorts, and private yachts are just some of the big-ticket items the Hermit Kingdom’s dictator has recently acquired. While many North Korean citizens go hungry, Kim Jong-un imports expensive goods from China and Japan for members of his regime.
Successful or Not?
Basketball and 1980’s pop culture are likely the extent of Kim Jong-un’s appreciation of anything American. Clearly the Western education he received in Switzerland—including classes in democracy—had little-to-no influence on his politics. He is a man who believes, at least outwardly, that he has god-like powers. And although some North Korean defectors claim the populace doesn’t respect him, they nevertheless fear him.