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A North Korean soldier stands guard at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Photo: A North Korean soldier stands guard at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Aug. 11, 2011 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bryanna Poulin).

One-Family Rule: North Korea’s Hereditary Authoritarianism

Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014

Why does the North Korean regime still exist, and how much longer will it last? These questions have been asked continuously for nearly a quarter-century, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the People’s Republic of Mongolia and the Soviet Union itself over the following two years. In July 1994, North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, died, and soon thereafter North Korea entered a period of famine that lasted three years and killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Korean citizens. Yet the regime carried on, through a period of limited economic reform in the early 2000s, a reversal of these reforms in the latter part of the decade and the death of Kim Il Sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.

A related question is: How has North Korea managed to exist as the only communist regime to practice hereditary leadership succession—not once, but twice? Since the end of 2011, North Korea has been under the ostensible leadership of third-generation Kim scion Kim Jong Un. The dramatic denunciation and execution in December 2013 of Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage—who had been seen by many as the No. 2 person in the leadership hierarchy—showed the world that the succession from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un was not as smooth and orderly as it had appeared. But the fact remains that the North Korean regime has remained in power for more than 60 years under the unbroken leadership of three generations of the Kim family. To evaluate the future of North Korea—be it gradual evolution, sudden transformation or collapse—it is critical to understand how the hereditary leadership system has developed historically, its current state and its future prospects.

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From Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il

North Korea’s hereditary leadership system has evolved over the past half-century and is deeply entrenched. Leadership by the Kims is not so much arbitrary one-man rule as it is an integral part of established and overlapping institutions: the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), the military and the family system itself. Hereditary succession was a choice made by Kim Il Sung and the top leadership in the 1960s, institutionalized in the 1970s and continued to the present day. Kim Il Sung abhorred the possibility of destabilizing changes in his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), such as what happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, and later in China after Mao’s death in 1976. In the mid-1960s, Kim Il Sung began to consider members of his close family as possible successors, and the successor eventually chosen was his eldest son, Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim had to prove his ability and his loyalty, and to compete with other contenders for the throne from within the Kim family, most notably his uncle Kim Yong Ju. Kim Jong Il won out in the succession struggle around 1974, when he was just older than 30, roughly the same age the elder Kim was when he became North Korea’s leader and slightly older than Kim Jong Un today.

The rivalry between Kim Jong Il and his uncle was merely the most important conflict in a complex intrafamily dynamic at the apex of the North Korean leadership system. By the 1970s, North Korea had become a family state unlike any other in the communist world. A look at the blood relatives and in-laws of the Kim family in the North Korean leadership of the early 1970s gives a sense of the “Kim family regime” already in place 40 years ago: In addition to Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Ju, there was Kim Yang Uk, a Protestant minister related to Kim Il Sung’s mother who was vice president of the DPRK; Kim Il Sung’s second wife, a member of the KWP Central Committee; and Foreign Minister Ho Dam, the husband of Kim Il Sung’s cousin. Another cousin was the vice president of the Academy of Social Sciences, Kim Il Sung’s brother-in-law was second secretary of the State Party Committee of Pyongyang, and several other family members occupied leading positions in the party and state. The one area of leadership where Kim Il Sung’s relatives were conspicuously absent was the military, but that sector was dominated by Kim Il Sung’s old comrades-in-arms from his Manchurian guerrilla days, who were “blood brothers” if not biologically related.

By the time Kim Jong Il was publicly brought out as Kim Il Sung’s successor at the Sixth Korean Workers’ Party Congress in October 1980, the regime had built an enormous cult of personality around the extended Kim family. Kim Il Sung’s great-grandfather Kim Ung U was alleged to have led the attack on the USS Gen. Sherman, an American merchant ship that had the misfortune of running aground near Pyongyang in 1866. Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, gained a substantial personality cult of her own. North Korea became a full-fledged family state in the 1980s not only in the sense of one-family rule, but in the self-image of the whole society as a nuclear family. At the same time, the regime gave the appearance of a diumvirate, father and son ruling together. Kim Jong Il continued to amass positions in the 1980s and 1990s: In 1982 he was made a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly; in 1991 he was named marshall of the army. By the time Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Kim Jong Il’s succession was unassailable. Despite the economic catastrophe of the mid- to late 1990s, supreme power passed from father to son without any significant challenge from within the leadership, as far as is currently known.

After Kim Jong Il

In the latter years of Kim Jong Il’s reign, there was much speculation outside North Korea about who would succeed him. Many analysts assumed that family rule was not likely to continue and that Kim would be succeeded by a collective leadership. But it is clear in retrospect that the regime was committed to carrying on hereditary succession to the next generation of Kims. However, there was no obvious choice of successor to Kim Jong Il when he disappeared from view in 2008, apparently the victim of a stroke. His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, appears to have fallen out of favor after being arrested at Japan’s Narita Airport in 2001. We know little about Kim Jong Chul, the second son, but he seems not to have been a contender. Rumors about Kim Jong Un as the “Chosen One” began to emerge in early 2009. By midyear he had gained the official sobriquet “Yongmyong-han Tongji” or “Brilliant Comrade.” He joined the Military Defense Commission, and traveled to China with his father in August 2010. On Sept. 27, 2010, he was named a “Daejang,” or four-star general, and the following day he was designated a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the KWP and appointed to the Party Central Committee.

Whatever the reasons for the choice of Kim Jong Un to succeed his father, leadership succession was rapidly formalized after Kim Jong Il’s death on Dec. 11, 2011. Kim Jong Un was declared supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army on Dec. 24, 2011, chairman of the Central Military Commission of the KWP on April 11, 2012, and first chairman of the National Defense Commission on April 13, 2012. In July 2012, Kim Jong Un was named “marshall” (wonsu) while his father was posthumously elevated to “generalissimo” (daewonsu) alongside his grandfather.

[ Listen to our 2019 podcast interview with Anna Fifield, author of "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un." ]

Kim Jong Un’s Leadership Purge

Soon after coming to power at the end of 2011, Kim Jong Un began purging leading figures from his father’s circle who had apparently been hand-picked to guide the leadership transition. This process reached a brutal climax with the arrest, denunciation and execution of Jang Song Taek, the husband of Kim Jong Un’s paternal aunt Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s younger sister. Jang had been a prominent figure during the transition to Kim Jong Un’s leadership, and was considered by many outside observers a kind of regent for the young Kim. His execution, an unprecedented public elimination of a member of the inner family circle, may indicate a new stage in the family leadership system. Whether and to what degree Jang actually threatened Kim Jong Un’s leadership, as his public denunciation claimed, his removal suggests that Kim’s hold on power was less stable and secure than it appeared. This development indicates that Kim Jong Un may not be able to hold on to power over the long term, as new threats to Kim Jung Un’s rule arise from within the elite, and perhaps—although much less likely—from elements of society at large.

The Kim Family Regime and Ordinary North Koreans

Of course, North Korea is not merely a one-man dictatorship, or an oligarchy that can impose itself on the North Korean people at will. In order to survive, the regime requires some support, or at least acquiescence, of a significant part of the general population. Broadly speaking, support or acquiescence is gained in three ways: through the instruments of surveillance and punishment, through information control and indoctrination, and through evocations of patriotism and national legitimacy. The police state nature of North Korea is well-known, and even the mildest expression of criticism toward the regime—and anything less than a worshipful attitude toward the Kims—incurs harsh punishment, up to and including lengthy sentences in one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps. Independent gatherings of more than a handful of individuals are not allowed, making organized protest virtually impossible. State control over information is probably greater in North Korea than anywhere else in the world: Internet access is limited to selected foreigners and a very small native elite, although that may be changing; access to foreign media is illegal and difficult to obtain for the vast majority of citizens; and although millions of North Koreans now have cell phones, the cell phone system is heavily monitored and cannot reach beyond North Korea’s borders. Finally, education and state media ceaselessly stress the threat of outside forces, especially the “hostile policy” of the U.S., and link the regime and the Kims to the defense of the nation, Korean independence and ethnic purity. South Korea is no longer portrayed as desperately poor—even the isolated North Koreans know better than that—but as a corrupt, decadent and racially compromised client state of the U.S.

These days, however, terror, indoctrination and nationalism are not the whole story. Since the collapse of the economy in the 1990s and the increasing marketization of society, more and more North Koreans are disconnected from the collective demands of the state and are focusing on their individual lives. Regime propaganda puts less emphasis on socialist ideals and gives more warnings about “anti-socialist deviation.” Despite periodic crackdowns on market activity, exchange through formal and informal markets has replaced distribution of goods by the government to a significant degree. In part because many of these activities are technically illegal, bribery and corruption have become an endemic part of everyday life. Testimonies of defectors and observation by foreigners alike suggest a growing and increasingly visible gap between those who have political power and wealth and those who do not. Younger North Koreans, with no memory of the Korean War, postwar reconstruction and forced collectivism, are much more oriented toward consumerism and market individualism than are their elders. As a result, a growing number of North Koreans see a vast gap between the propaganda of a collectivist state that still calls itself “socialist” and a daily reality occupied by individual initiative, making money and evading the rules and reach of that very state. The state can no longer supply the necessities of life—including jobs—for many if not most North Koreans; its role is largely a negative one, to be avoided if possible and assuaged with bribes where necessary. This naturally leads to an attitude of resentment, skepticism and even cynicism toward a state that, until a couple of decades ago, was highly repressive but at least could keep most North Koreans minimally housed and fed.

Alongside these changes of social and economic relations has come an erosion of state information control, which was heretofore nearly absolute. The North Korean cell phone system may not reach the outside world, but by replacing a North Korean SIM card with one smuggled in from China, North Koreans are able to communicate with relatives across the Chinese border and those in South Korea as well. South Korean movies and TV dramas are loaded on flash drives, brought in via China, and viewed on North Korean home computers. Despite the state’s near-total control of Internet access and television and radio broadcasts, North Koreans have much more access to information and entertainment from the outside world than they had even a decade ago.

Yet the marketization of society and weakening of information control has not translated into any observable criticism of, much less organized protest against, the current regime. At best, North Koreans today are only able to engage in evasion and passive resistance. Organization outside state control is difficult not only because it is a punishable offense, but also because North Koreans still spend so much of their lives in organizational activity sponsored by the state, including some 10 years of mandatory military service for males. Ideological indoctrination has weakened but has not entirely lost its effectiveness; recent defectors interviewed in South Korea still tend to speak reverently of founding leader Kim Il Sung, and to a lesser extent Kim Jong Il. They tend to blame North Korea’s problems on corrupt and ineffective bureaucrats rather than on the supreme leaders or the system itself. Individual North Koreans may try to defect to the South, despite the enormous risks to themselves and their families of getting caught attempting to flee the country, but there is little sign that many North Koreans have even imagined, much less tried to organize, opposition to the regime.

The Future

Up to now a combination of coercion, indoctrination, information control and above all a highly centralized leadership system that cannot dispense with a member of the Kim ruling family at its apex has kept successive Kims in power. But Kim Jong Un’s actions suggest a leadership style much more overtly brutal than that of his father, characterized by public purges the likes of which have not been seen since Kim Il Sung’s consolidation of power in the 1950s and 1960s. Techniques of control that worked half a century ago may not be as effective today, when information is more difficult to contain and North Korea does not have the protection of two powerful patrons, the Soviet Union and China, as was the case in Kim Il Sung’s time. North Korea, despite its isolation, is under the gaze of the global media and increasingly connected internally through forms of communication such as mobile phones. Relative to China, to say nothing of South Korea or Japan, North Koreans live in dire economic conditions—and both the elites and the mass of the population are well aware of this disparity. Kim Jong Un’s brutal purges may work in the short run to strengthen his leadership, but they may also provoke a backlash with far-reaching consequences for the structure of the North Korean regime. This may not mean the collapse of the North Korean regime or even the end of Kim family rule—another member of the family could be brought to power by a rival faction of the leadership, for example—but the latest transition of power has already proved more violent and problematic than the first one, and the hereditary succession system put in place by Kim Il Sung shows signs of serious strain.

Recently there has been renewed focus among policymakers and pundits and within academic circles in the U.S. and South Korea about preparing for a North Korean collapse. In a detailed study for the RAND Corp., Bruce Bennett outlined several scenarios for regime collapse and suggested contingency plans for the U.S. and South Korean authorities to deal with an unstable or disintegrating North Korea. It is of course possible that North Korea will collapse in the near future, and stakeholder countries should certainly be prepared for a range of contingencies. But predictions of imminent collapse have been wrong for more than two decades, and in some respects the North Korean regime is in a better position to survive now than it was in the 1990s. The economy is doing better than it has for some time, at least for the 20 percent or so of the population who live in Pyongyang and other privileged cities, even if there is a growing gap between rich and poor. North Korea’s current leadership, including its supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, is young and active, unlike the geriatric and ossified leadership of East Germany in 1989. Also unlike East Germany, North Korea is not propped up by a Soviet Union that can withdraw its forces and pull the plug on the system, as Gorbachev did to the German Democratic Republic. China, despite its frustrations with North Korea’s actions and attitude with regard to its nuclear program and economic reform, shows no sign of willingness to cut Pyongyang loose. For the Chinese leadership, paying a relatively small price in economic aid and investment to keep North Korea afloat is preferable to the uncertainty and instability of letting the North Korean economy collapse.

North Korea may not long survive the revolution of rising expectations created by internal socioeconomic changes, and the external environment—that is, the threat represented by the U.S. and South Korea used to justify the dictatorship, and Chinese support for North Korea in China’s own perceived strategic interest—may not be conducive to regime maintenance indefinitely. But for now at least, internal and external circumstances do not appear to threaten the rule of the Kims, and while change and even deliberate reform may take place on the margins, the regime established under Kim’s grandfather 65 years ago looks like it could be with us for some time to come.

Charles K. Armstrong is professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. His most recent books include “Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992” (Cornell, 2013) and “The Koreas” (Routledge: Second Edition, 2014).


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