Outlets around the world are reporting on the confusing health situation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, leading many people to revisit the turbulent political history of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in general. Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, the leader who oversaw some of the country's most infamous events. Kim Jong-il's death was mysterious as well, so it may serve as a template for North Korea's current predicament.
North Korea is in turmoil right now following reports that its leader, Kim Jong-un is dead. On Saturday, reporters from the Hong Kong Satellite Television network (HKSTV) claimed that a "very solid source" had confirmed Kim's death. Stories circulating throughout Asia on the social media app Weibo reportedly claimed that Kim had died in a botched heart surgery, where the doctor's hand shook too much to implant a stent in him. However, other reports — such as one in Japan's Shukan Gendai — claim that Kim is alive but in poor health, perhaps in a "vegetative state."
Whatever the case, all eyes are on North Korea — a notoriously secretive country with limited news coming out of the state-run media outlet, KCNA. So far, North Korean media seems to be ignoring the stories of Kim's alleged death altogether.
To some, this mirror's the country's behavior between 2008 and 2011, when rumors spread that then-leader Kim Jong-il was on his deathbed. Now, some are looking back on that period for clues about what is going on in North Korea. Here is the basic rundown on Kim Jong-il and his reign over North Korea.
Conflicting Origin Stories
It is not even clear when or where Kim Jong-il was born, as two conflicting sources tell different stories. According to records from the Soviet Union, Kim was born in a Russian village in 1941 while his father was fighting in World War II. However, his official biography claims that he was born on Feb. 16, 1942, in a secret military camp in Korea — occupied at the time by Japan.
In either case, Kim was born to Korean military leader Kim Il-sung in the midst of World War II, and grew up in the tumultuous time where Korea was hotly contested territory, right up until the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Kim Jong-il was officially established as his father's successor by 1976, according to Jae-Cheon Lim's book Leader Symbols and Personality Cult in North Korea: The Leader State. However, upon his father's death in 1994, he declared a three-year period of "national mourning" before officially taking over. While his father held the title of "premier," Kim took the title of Supreme Leader of the DPRK. In North Korea, he is commonly referred to as "Dear Leader," while his father is referred to as "Great Leader."
Kim Jong-il's succession went a long way in showing that North Korea's ostensibly democratic system was not legitimate. Many insiders have called the country's elections "shams," and the checks and balances on Kim's power were more for show than anything else. Still, he was unanimously elected to his various offices between 1994 and 2011.
Kim Jong-il was infamous for his "songun" policies, or, "military-first policies." He continuously strengthened his county's military throughout his reign, making it the fourth largest standing army in the world behind only the U.S., China and India. This rapidly expanding military is also associated with some of the human rights violations North Korea has been accused of over the years.
Kim's focus on military strength came at the expense of other considerations as well. According to Andrei Lankov's book The Real North Korea, Kim had a "reputation for being almost comically incompetent in matters of economic management."
His reign began in 1994 and coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — North Korea's biggest trade partner — and natural disasters, both of which resulted in famine throughout the country. Food scarcity remained a problem for the North Korean people throughout his entire tenure in office. Experts believe that between 240,000 and 420,000 people died in North Korea's famine in the 1990s.
Cult of Personality
Kim Jong-il worked hard to build his own version of the "personality cult" surrounding his father. The state-run media often pushed this agenda as well, making Kim's birthdays into national celebrations and revering him as a hero. Outside analysts have never been able to clearly determine whether this reverence is genuine or if the people of North Korea simply fear to dispute it.
Kim Jong-il's health first came into question in August of 2008. As early as that, conflicting reports suggested that the leader might be dead, and that a power vaccuum might exist in his place. Japanese author Toshimitsu Shigemura even claimed that Kim had died of diabetes in 2003 and had been replaced with a look-alike for the years until his son Kim Jong-un could take over.
Regardless, Kim's public appearances waned in the years leading up to his death, not unlike the recent absence of Kim Jong-un from public life. His sparse public profile continued, with reports claiming that he had multiple strokes, suffered from epilepsy and was dealing with the repercussions of years of chain-smoking. Foreign intelligence agencies were "baffled" by this confusion, and by how long it went on for.
Though he had two older sons, Kim Jong-il established Kim Jong-un as his successor officially in 2009. At this time, it was also reported that Kim Jong-il arranged a marriage for his son. Unconfirmed reports claim that Kim Jong-un married Ri Sol-ju in 2009, and that they had a daughter, Ju-ae in 2010. In 2013, NBA star Dennis Rodman claimed that he had met Ju-ae during his visit to the country.
Despite three years of speculation about his health, mental faculties and even whether or not he was alive, Kim Jong-il did not really pass away until Dec. 17, 2011, according to the North Korean media. It stated that he suffered a heart attack while leaving Pyongyang by train. Later reports added that the leader's heart attack came "in a fit of rage" when he saw faults in an ongoing construction project. Kim was named the "eternal leader" of North Korea, and his remains were reportedly preserved and put on display in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
Despite his plans to make Kim Jong-un his successor, there was some confusion following Kim Jong-il's death. Some believed a regent might take over until Kim Jong-un was ready. Instead, Kim Jong-un assumed official titles and took over control of the country seven days after his father's passing.
All of these details on Kim Jong-il's death are of interest now, as his son's health remains in question. With just one child — a young daughter — the succession plan for North Korea is very unclear in the event of Kim Jong-un's death.