Handsome, intelligent, good looking: these word are adjectives which are often used for describing the half brother of Kim Jong Il[1] : Kim Pyong Il. He was, is and will be always considered as a potential successor of his father, Kim Il Sung and therefore as a direct rival to Kim Jong Il. However the first son of Kim Il Sung won on the run to the north korean throne.

The paper presented below is sometimes based upon assumptions humorous, which are normal in a topic concerning the most reclusive country in the world where each information is filtered and censured. As a great example, when the author has been in North Korea, leaving the country, each picture taken by him was severely checked by north korean customers.

  1. The role of family and key relationship

1.1 The Role of Family and Key Relationships

Power and leadership in the North Korean political system has its own unique characteristics. It derives from a staunchly traditional Confucian culture, in which the family is the central socializing element and the father functions as an authoritarian figure in the family. This culture is reflected in the political system through a blend of nepotism, a dominant leader, and an individualized conglomerate of military and civilian leadership. In many respects, it is this Confucian culture that lends legitimacy to the leader and his regime.

From its earliest days, the North Korean regime practiced nepotism, placing Kim Ilsung’s relatives and close associates into key posts in the ruling troika (party, state, and military) as part of the father-to-son dynastic succession plan. Under Kim Il Sung, relatives held about 24 key positions in the North Korean apparatus.

            Under Kim Jong Il, the family-based patronage system has declined, with fewer direct family members occupying senior leadership portfolios. By 1996, close relatives of the Kim family within the leadership numbered six. Besides Kim Jong Il, they included Kim Kyong Hui, Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Ju (Kim Il Sung’s brother, who returned to the leadership in 1992, both in the Politburo and as a vice president), Yang Hyong Sop, and Kang Ju Il (a maternal nephew of Kim Il Sung, who was the first deputy director of the KWP CC United Front Department). Within the Central Committee, the number of Kim relatives has climbed slightly since the 1980s, but is down from the 1970s.

Kim Yong Ju
Kim Jong Ju, the younger brother of Kim Il Sung. It’s rumoured that an other brother of Kim Il Sung is also alive. Source: NK media

            One area where blood relationships have increased is among relatives of key Kim Jong Il supporters, thus creating a fabric of familial relationships in support of the regime. For example, Chang Song Taek’s two brothers began to rise in prominence under Kim Jong Il. Chang Song U, who had begun his rise under Kim Il Sung, was appointed the commander of the 3rd Corps, while Chang Song Kil was made deputy commander of the 4th Corps. This has allowed Kim Jong Il to create a web of connections spread across several families.

Under Kim Jong Il, the family-based patronage system, therefore, appears to have been replaced by a relationship-based system. The succession struggle of the 1970s between Kim Yang Chu and Kim Jong Il, as well as the internal struggles within the Kim family following Kim Il Sung’s death, convinced Kim Jong Il to place increasing emphasis on a selected group of associates who trace their relationship to him from different angles. This not only necessitated a very cautious power building strategy based on letting first generation leaders die off and elevating second generation leaders to key posts, it also made it vital that Kim Jong Il not tie his ability to lead strictly to the formal leadership. As such, Kim retains some of Kim Il Sung’s close associates to serve as a bridge to the country’s revolutionary past. Most of the key positions within the regime, however, are occupied by people of Kim’s generation who hail from the Three Revolution Movement squads, the classmates of the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Institute, and the graduates of the Namsan School and the Kim Il Sung University, all key institutions in Kim Jong Il’s background.

We will here analyze the case of his half-brother: Kim Pyong Il who was supposed to be his higher rival.

  1. Childhood and study period

2.1 Childhood

Kim Pyong Il was born on August 10 1954, is the half brother of the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il and the son of the former president Kim Il Sung.

He received the same name as as the first son of his mother Kim Song Ae, Shura Kim who was born in Viatsk in 1944 and died in Pyongyang three years later[2]. Various theses exist concerning his death. One of them is based upon the fact that he was estranged by Kim Jong Il At the age of 4 when they were playing in the swimming pool.

Soon after the death of his first wife, Kim Jong Suk, mother of Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung married Kim Song Ae in 1960[3], original name Kim Song Pal, a beautiful woman 20 years younger than him born in 1932. She was already pregnant with Kim Il Sung’s baby: Kim Pyong Il.

Very early Kim Jong Il started to hate Kim Pyong Il as far as he was the son of the second wife of Kim Il Sung, Kim Song Ae[4]. Kim Jong Il hated his stepmother because she was involved in the death of his natural mother, Kim Jong Suk. She died in 1949 from a hemorrhage during childbirth. However according to Kim Jong Il’s relatives she would have survived if some doctors were present. She refused each treatment because she knew already about the relation between her husband and Kim Song Ae and consequently that eye’s of her husband were not on her that’s why she preferred to die. As a result Kim Jong Il never called his stepmother „mother”[5]. An important north korean officer who defect thinks that his event may have great consequences on the entire life of Kim Jong Il[6].

In a summary, Kim Jong Il was attached to his mother, disloved his stepmother and consequently Kim Pyong Il and had mixed feelings about his father.

His half-brother Kim Jong Il was born on February 16 1942 near Khabarovsk, in former Soviet Union, at that time his father was busy with the anti-Japanese guerilla movement. After the liberation of Korea, Kim Il Sung had still no time to look after his first son because of the founding of the Korean Worker’s Party and the 25th June war. Kim Jong Il grew up under the care of Kim Il Sung maternal cousin, Kang Po Pi, Until he was 15.

On a total other way, Kim Pyong Il received a true affection from his father, and Kim Jong Il spent his unhappy childhood as a „half orphan”. Kim Il Sung, even said the following regarding Pyong Il: „a likely general has been born in our family”. Kim Pyong Il himself also said: „I will reunify the fatherland by arms and worship my father in the reunification plaza”[7]. Kim Jong Il grew up to be an arrogant and selfish boy. It appears that he was destined to be such a boy because he was born and brought up in a troublesome atmosphere.

The Young Kim Jong Il’s antipathy against his father and half brother’s was mainly attributed to his father’s Ill treatment of his real mother. It appears that Kim Jong Il was jealous of his step mother because she was endowed with beauty and intelligence which his real mother lacked.

Kim Pyong Il started his scholar road at the elite school „Namsan” in 1969 where Kim Jong Il was also but twelve years earlier[8]. This school was often compared to the Japanese School Gakushuen[9] and lectures here were only provided to children of the elit. The school was completely isolated from the world and may translate the high esteem of Kim Jong Il and of his half brother. Each pupil was convinced that the luxury that he coped with was natural as they were descendant of the elite.

Kim Jong Il on this period was first named director of the propaganda department of the party in 1969; his role was enlarged to operations committed against South Korea in 1973. He used his power to isolate his half brother. Starting 1969, Kim Pyong Il’s teachers have been expelled to local regions[10]. By the way permission was needed from the school to meet Kim Song Ae and her sons[11].

2.2 Study period

Kim Pyong Il studied in Pyongyang where he graduated from Kim Il Sung University from the Political and Economic division[12] with a major in economics. Here he had a lot of friends[13] like one of the north korean vice president in 1996, Pak Sun Chol’s sons, Pak Chun Bo. He passed also the Kim Il Sung National War College.

Here Kim Jong Il demonstrated excellent skills concerning his future and tried to reduce the power of Kim Pyong as soon as it was possible. His accession to the propaganda department was a great opportunity for him as we checked it before. First overall Kim Jong Il started with purges and especially with the Kapsan group and with one conducted by an uncle of Kim Pyong Il: Kim Jong Ju. He was the first person of the Kim Clan to be put away of the run to the north korean throne. He disappeared from the political scene on this period and reappeared only in 1993 to the central committee of the party. The third half brother, Chang Song Taek was already put on surveilled residence with a limited freedom of movement[14].

Transmitting the propaganda organ to Kim Jong Il and a higher degree in the military scale to Kim Pyong Il were a sort of test for Kim Il Sung’s sons in order to see how they will use their power. Definitely here Kim Jong Il won with his half brother.  It is important to note that whether Kim Jong Il was not sure if he wanted to take the power, however he hated so his half-brother that he couldn’t accept that Kim Pyong would have the opportunity to be the next North Korean leader.

            Kim Pyong Il is said also to have studied in Warsaw in 1976[15] and Moscow[16]. Kim Pyong Il began working as a battalion commander at the guard’s headquarters in 1977-78 and was already considered as a growing threat for Kim Jong Il. He had a weak point; he was not a former military which had considerably reduced his influence on soldiers. However he had the support of old generals such as  O Jin U, Hur Bong Hak and Kim Kwang Hyop who fighted during the Korean war and who wanted to keep their privileges in case of a sudden death of Kim Il Sung.

According to Hwang Jang Yop, it is estimated that in February 1974 at a secret Politburo meeting, Kim Jong Il was selected as heir apparent knew that he will be the Kim Il Sung successor was effectively co-leader of the country by the mid-1980s. Kim Jong Il is the heir by definition due to the fact, that the Confucianism tradition disqualify heir any other than the eldest son. there has never been this kind of dynastic succession in a communist regime before, but Kim Il Sung’s Juche philosophy, which has been enshrined in the constitution as the „guiding principle” of the state, was being adapted so as to legitimize this legitimization. Juche is used to legitimize both the present cult of personality and Kim Jong Il’s succession.  If any of Kim Jong Il’s rivals were to oppose his succession, they would also have to oppose Juche.  Thus, if one of Kim Jong Il’s rivals were to grab power, the legitimacy of the regime itself would be lost.

Using his position as head of the ruling party’s personnel department, he already thought how to put away his family members[17]. He also weeded out Kim Il Sung’s supporters and replaced them with his own clique. He tapped into the information pipeline to Kim Il Sung, siphoning off important reports for himself. Rival pretenders to the throne got shut out. Kim ordered party members to stay away from his half-brother Kim Pyong Il, who closely resembled their father. After that, even casual contact with Kim Pyong Il became risky, says Hwang Jang Yop, his teacher at the time. Incredibly, the elder Kim came to fear his son’s ruthlessness, worrying about the fate of Kim Pyong Il and two other children by his second wife. „Kim Il Sung was very aware of Kim Jong Il’s ability to get rid of his half-siblings”, says Hwang Jang Yop, „He tried to be very nice to him in the hope that he would spare their lives after he died[18]”.

Kim Il Sung as a patriarch in the north korean leadership did not have a female aspiration or domination, but Kim Jong Il does. Even taking in account his status in the political scale he had to cope with his energetic and restless stepmother. She was invisible as long as her spouse was alive, but after his death in 1994, she seemed to promote Kim Pyong Il. Kim Jong Il was also afraid of other relatives: uncles, cousins, in laws about 25 people who may also be legitimate successors.

Kim Jong Il had to be careful in balancing relations between his stepmother’s clan and his own clan. This filial ritual dancing appears to distract Kim Jong Il from affairs of state. However, it is very important for him to deal with this problem correctly if he wants to succeed in consolidating his own grip on power.

What will happen if Kim Jong Il’s fails to perform his filial duties to his stepmother. The history of King Kyongjong’s brief and unsuccessful rule (1720-1724) provides us an example of what may happen to him. King Kyongjong inherited the throne from his father, King Suk Jong, who had ruled Yi Korea with an iron from 1674 Until 1720. Kyongjong was the supposed successor but had none of his father political’s instincts. However he frustrated the court officials so much that the Noron faction, a rival faction, started to spread the rumor about the weakness of his capabilities. Finally Kyongjong died, presumably poisoned. His stepbrother Yongjo became the next king of Yi Korea and ruled for 25 years.

There are some similarities between King Kyongjong and Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il inherited the crown from his father. He too attempted to continue his father policy, his rules is also somewhat unstable and unpredictable. Kim Jong Il was haunted by allegations of poor mental health, which was emanated not by its foreigner rivals but by Pyongyang itself. After the funeral of his father which occurred on the 20th July 1994, he disappeared for 87 days gave rise to rumors about his failing health. As Yongjo Kim Pyong Il was also his most dangerous rival. It is an historical parallel worth mentioning.

Concerning Kim Song Ae, she was said to be on fairly good terms with her husband’s young brother, Kim Jong Ju. However, her relations with Kim Jong Il have gradually deteriorated since he was appointed as heir-apparent to his father. When Kim Jong Il was made heir apparent in February 1974 he began to thoroughly eliminate her and her children – Kim Pyong Il in particular – from the core positions of power as part of the so-called operation „to remove Kim Song Ae’s offspring[19]”. In particular, as Kim Jong Il increased the idolization of his own mother, Kim Song Ae began to be eliminated from real power. As regards the Korean Democratic Women Unit, as chairwoman Kim Song Ae is only a               „figurehead”, Kim Jong Il’s younger sister Kim Kyong Hui has been exercising all power. As soon as Kim Jong Il has been named secretly as the heir, propagandists started to create some charisma for Kim Jong Il. They created a background which would implant in mind of the people the belief that Kim Jong Il was the right successor, that’s why false stories concerning him were written. In the formation of a successive charisma, it was necessary to legitimate Kim Jong Il and to be depicted as the most superior being of the mankind to inherit power form the predecessor. Summum of these stories reached their peak in the 1980s. For example we can quote “the legendary Tale of the bright Star[20].

Besides according to North Korean officials, there was a time where Kim Il Sung had considered appointing his succession to his three sons, „Jong Il, the Party, Pyong Il, the military and the government to Jong Il”. According to Cho Myong Chol, a north korean defector, son of former North Korean Vice-Minister of Construction Cho Chol Chun, Kim Song Ae showed up and said that „Kim Jong Il should be entrusted with the party and Kim Pyong Il should be made responsible for the military”.

Kim Jong Il sent key members of his family to work at alternative foreign departments so that they could not interfere with his power. 1977 seems to be a critical year, Kim Jong Il was conscious that his lack of military background may be a serious weakness for him, in opposition Kim Pyong Il completed his degree with high grade and in the military academy and was in touch the new generation of north korean generals[21]. According to North Korean defectors, Kim Pyong Il has a certain „charismatic presence” about him and is personally engaging, traits some analysts say are lacking in Kim Jong Il. Kim Pyong Il had the support of generals who were not involved in the Korean war. Some older generals followed Kim Jong Il in order to keep their privileges; also the connections of Kim Jong Il helped him to send abroad his half-brother and other members of his family.

In 1975, Kim Jong Il, who was a car maniac, caused a car accident hitting a telegraph pole in the street while driving a Mercedes Benz 600. He was in hospital for quite a long time. His disappearance from the public scene caused a rumor that he was placed under arrest somewhere by anti Kim elements[22].


  1. 1976-1988

3.1 1976 – 1982

Kim Jong Il created the office 10 of the Korean Party which was responsible for regulating, controlling and being responsible for Kim Jong Il’s half-siblings in 1970s. It is said that rules of this department were known by heart by each north korean citizen[23]. Discord between Kim Jong Il and Kim Pyong Il increased when he entered the Security Guard Bureau on the occasion of the Panmunjon axe incident on 18th July 1976. It is an incident where north korean soldiers killed americans militaries. Since relations between both Koreas were more complicated because of this incident, Kim Pyong Il was the first one to hold a rally by leading his classmates at the Kim Il Sung University. Following this he voluntarily joined the mechanized battalion in the Security Guard Bureau with Kim Chang Ha, son of Kim Pyong Ha, director of the State Security Department and Chon Wi, son of Chon Mun Sop, director of the security guard bureau. He even organized a suicide squad to prepare for the contingencies of war against South Korea. Kim Pyong Il was then promoted to colonel holding the position of deputy operation officer in the Security Guard Bureau.

One of the biggest mistakes of Kim Pyong was here realized. If he wanted to get the power, he had now all the keys to get it, however as soon as he was upgraded, Kim Pyong Il started to lead a dissolute life, and started to drink with his friends, Kim Pyong Ha and Kim Chang Ha. In his residence in the Taesong district. He used to invite female members of the People’s Army ensembles, playing with them, offering gifts including watches with his name-engraved. His supporters started to scream all over the country „long live to Kim Pyong Il”. These acts were totally prohibited in the North Korean monolithic system.

In seizing power, Kim Jong Il used a method of placing confidence in his aides and as soon as he judged that their influence, he eliminates them. For example he eliminated Kim Pyong Il’s friends: Kim Pyong Ha who was right arm in 1970s. At that time, Kim Chang Ha frequently met with Kim Pyong Il at his father’s house in Amisan, and at times he even shouted: „Hurrah for Kim Pyong Il!”. Kim Pyong Ha looked upon his son’s action favorably and thought that Kim Pyong Il will be the next leader. Kim Jong Il was informed about these events by 15 members of the older generation of the political department, and told Kim Pyong Ha to be careful. After the Sixth Congress ended in October 1980 the issue of Kim Pyong Ha was regulated and his son committed suicide in March 1981[24].

Other example: in the so-called „Incident of Side Branches (Gyeotgaji sageon)” – the side branches incident means that they come from the same tree but the branches are different-. This comparison was very often used through the party organization; Kim Pyong Il and his mother were often described as branches off the same stalk[25]. Yi Yeong Seon with Kim Hyeong Rak, a former pilot of Kim Il Sung’s presidential plane was placed in detention in 1978 as a result of the discord between Kim Jong Il and his half brother Kim Pyong Il. The first one defected to South Korea[26].

Kim Jong Il always waited for an other chance of throwing away his half brother; here he had a crucial one: He gave an order to Chon Mun Sop to realize an investigation on his half brother. Every collected material was then shown to Kim Il Sung who enraged reading the documents. His reaction was immediate. Kim Pyong Il’s demission was immediately ordered, and Kim Pyong Il was discharged of army. Besides all members in the office of the bureau where Kim Pyong Il belonged to moved to local areas, and a label was attached to their transfer that they should not be nominated as key members again. Thus Kim Pyong Il was no longer able to maintain his dignity and authority in the army and probably since this moment his army’s support was totally reduced. He was then sent to East Germany on the pretext of pursuing academic studies. Next step was Yugoslavia where he was sent as a military attaché in 1980. Here we can notice that his rank was reduced probably in order to limitate his contacts with generals and as a punishment concerning what happened before in Pyongyang.   Kim Pyong Il was not only thrown because he was a real danger for Kim Jong Il but also by the fact that he had a dissolute life as we seen before. For a few weeks Kim Pyong-il spent sometimes on the island of Malta where he focused on his education of English. He lived outside of La Valetta and was already married. He was also often accompanied by his bodyguards to his lectures of English performed at the University of Malta with a foreign instructor.

Kim Jong Il was since the 1970s the successor to Kim Il Sung. It was very risky to be one of its enemies as long as it would call in question the successor but also the nature of this monolithic regime. That’s why he expelled not only his half brother but other potential dangerous persons.

Other Kim Pyong Il’s family members were also expelled. Kim Pyong Il’s sister, Kim Kyung Jin left with her husband for Czechoslovakia and his brother, Kim Young Il to East Germany. Observers saw also in Kim Jong Ju as a possible successor to Kim Il Sung, and thus a potential rival to Kim Jong Il. However, as Kim Jong Il’s stature began to grow, Kim Yong Ju’s standing declined proportionately. He suddenly dropped out of sight from May 1976-Until just as suddenly he emerged in December 1993 as one of the four vice presidents and a member of the Korean Workers Party Political Bureau.

As we know, the military is pivotal to the physical survival of North Korea and to Kim Jong Il’s transition. Given the inter-Korean confrontation since the 1950s, the 1.2 million strong military always had a special preferential status under the late leader. Since the early 1970s, Kim junior has placed his own politically correct loyalists, now regiment-level commanders in the Korean People’s Army hierarchies and therefore put away Kim Pyong Il’s supporters; the moves seemed to upset some of the professionally minded Korean People’s Army officers as an unwelcome political intrusion. Nevertheless, by mid-1985, Kim Jong Il had gained a firm personal control of the military, prompting his father to remark in 1986 that „the leadership succession issue was brilliantly solved”. By implication, the military was and will remain the dominant institution that can make or break Kim Jong Il’s succession. In an apparent effort to channel military allegiance to the two Kims, Pyongyang promoted senior officials, including some 700 generals, between April 1992 and July 1993.

3.2 1985-1988

The departure of Kim Pyong Il to Belgrad may have ever been an error in the strategy of Kim Jong Il concerning his half-brother, Kim Pyong Il not only was acting as a military but also were put in the diplomacy sphere where he could developed himself. Kim Jong Il may have probably recognized his mistake and send him back to home in 1985.

He spent there 3 years before coming back to Eastern Europe as an ambassador of North Korea to Hungary. During this period, Kim Jong Il accentuated his power, people have been expelled to local regions for just shaking hands with Kim Pyong Il. People kept their distance from him even in 1986 when he was vice-director of the Operations Bureau of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces[27] and was head of defence ministry bureau concerned with equipment procurements[28].

In July 1986 forces supporting Kim Pyong Il within the military rose in rebellion with two general-grade officers at the centre. They failed to muster sympathetic forces and, as a result, they all defected to China.

It was after the eighties that the movement to oppose the Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il system began to appear within the military. In October 1986, O Jin U, minister of People’s Armed Forces who accompanied Kim Il Sung on his visit to Moscow, cancelled his itinerary and hurriedly returned to Pyongyang and suppressed anti-Kim Jong Il disturbances within the military. In January 1982, the first session of Seventh Supreme People’s Assembly, which is similar to the National Assembly of South Korea, was abruptly suspended after one day. In addition, some contend that the fifth session of the Sixth Party Central Committee was convened according to the demand and pressure by young military officers[29].


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