The Kim Dynasty and North Korea's Power Structure

The Kim Dynasty has controlled North Korea for over 7 decades. Rule by the Kim leaders has been characterized by rebellion, division, and atrocity. The first ruler in the 3-generation lineage was Kim Il-Sung who created the People’s Republic of North Korea in 1948. Under his rule North Korea adhered to a strict ideology of autonomy and seclusion. Il-Sung’s participation as a revolutionary soldier against Japan and later as a soldier in the Soviet army likely influenced the philosophy with which he led the country (Campbell, 2017).

Upon the death of Kim Il-Sun in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-Il took the realm. Not much is known about this leader except for the fact that he grossly mishandled the economy of his country; and this, in part, contributed to the tremendous scarcity of food North Korea experienced during his first four years in power. It is estimated that as many as three and a half million people died of starvation as a result. During his years in power, Kim Jong-Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui participated in the political arena, making sure that upon Kim Jong-Il’s death, her brother, Kim Jong Un would take over.

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There are rumors that she was assassinated after her influential husband was removed from his position in the government (Campbell, 2017).

In 1971, Kim Jong Il’s mistress gave birth to a son, Kim Jong Nam. Jong Nam’s mother was later believed to have moved to Russia during the 80s and eventually to the West where she died in 2002.

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Jong Nam, although in line to be the next ruler as the oldest male, lost favor with the family when he was arrested in 2001 for forging his passport. His partying lifestyle and liberal philosophy further negated his chance of becoming North Korea’s highest chief. Jong Nam died in 2017 when he was poisoned at an airport by two women who put a rag over his mouth. There is speculation that he may have been planning to take over the government from his half-brother and the current ruler, Kim Jong Un and that the assassination was Jong Un’s doing (Campbell, 2017).

Kim Jong Un took over as Supreme Leader of North Korea in 2011 when his father died. His rule is characterized in some respects like that of his predecessors. He rules his country rather like that of a company’s CEO, working toward a clearly stated vision. Dead weight in “his company” is eliminated and as leader he looks for new faces to fill the gaps. In recent years Jong Un has demonstrated his leadership and seems to be moving North Korea in a more favorable direction. The economy appears to be stronger than under the former regime and this is a clear indication the Jong Un is breaking from tradition. In a speech he gave in 2015, Jong Un vowed to improve the standard of living for his people. He has held meetings with the Seventh Party Congress breaking a 36-year hiatus. Implementation of other government processes has given him more credibility in leading his nation. In addition to economic advancement, Jong Un has maintained his nuclear arsenal. This has been the source of much conflict with the United States and its allies and puts North Korea under major scrutiny by the rest of the world (Kang, 2017).

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons History

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been in existence since the rule of Kim Il Sung. Although the Korean War had ended in 1953 with a ceasefire, he still believed that his country needed protection from the United States. The United States President at the time was Dwight Eisenhower. He had implied that nuclear weapons were possible as a way of bringing the Korean War to an end. This was threat enough for Il Sung. He sought out help from the Soviet Union who was involved in the Cold War with the United States at that time. The Soviets were more than willing to come to North Korea’s aid. They eagerly offered their assistance in helping North Korea acquire resources for protection and thus Il Sung began building his nuclear arsenal (Waxman, 2017).

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy initiated a nuclear test ban treaty to try to deter countries with nuclear capabilities. North Korea refused to sign the treaty and continued developing its nuclear program. Two years later, North Korea acquired a small nuclear reactor for industrial research. The Vietnam War only fueled the animosity Il Sung felt against the United States. As rule by the Kim dynasty has passed from one generation to the next, the aggression has continued (Waxman, 2017).

In 1985, North Korea signed an international treaty which had been drawn up in the 60s to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Then in 1991, North and South Korea signed a pact agreeing to stop the use of nuclear weapons (Boghani, 2018). The nuclear program in North Korea has become more aggressive with the successors of Kim Il Sung. When Kim Jong Il took over after his father’s death in 1994, he began testing nuclear missiles almost immediately. During his 18 years in power, he conducted 18 nuclear missile tests. Kim Jong Un had already conducted twice that number in just his first four years in power. In addition, he had conducted three nuclear tests. And since 2016, Jong Un has made it very clear of his intentions to expand the range of his missiles and to build hydrogen bombs. Threats from the allies of nuclear use no longer intimidate Kim Jong Un. He has been preparing for battle since the day he came into power (Jackson, 2016).

The United States and North Korea

The relationship between the United States and North Korea can be characterized as a turbulent period of history that includes intimidation, talks, imposed restrictions, and missile testing. As North Korea has worked to build its nuclear arsenal, the United States has worked to stop them. In 1994, when Bill Clinton was President, the United States threatened an attack on a nuclear plant in North Korea when the country said it was considering using fuel rods to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. Instead the United States was able to negotiate, and the strike was not carried out. The countries reached an agreement in which North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facility in return for fuel oil and help in building water and light power plants. In 1998 the North Koreans did test a missile which failed, but negotiations continued. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a visit to North Korea in 2000 although President Clinton was unable to make the trip before his term ended (Boghani, 2018).

The Bush administration did little to help the United States’ relationship with North Korea. To the contrary, it made the relationship more fragile. Bush put off talks and accused North Korea of enriching uranium. He suspended oil shipments that had been negotiated under Clinton. North Korea eventually pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty and relations hit an all-time low. The country did, however, admit to having a nuclear weapon in 2003. Later that year President Bush participated with five countries – China, Russia, Japan, North and South Korea – in the Six Party Talks. North Korea agreed (again) to give up its nuclear program. In exchange the other countries agreed to help with supplying light and water reactors. The United States and South Korea agreed not to use nuclear weapons and Japan pledged its support (Boghani, 2018).

In July, 2006, this brief period of calm was interrupted when North Korea tested seven missiles. One of them was a long-range missile and had it been successful would have had the capability of reaching Alaska. North Korea had become annoyed with progress on the light and water construction and in North Korea fashion, had gone back on their agreement to suspend. Later that year they conducted the first nuclear test. This prompted action from the United Nations demanding North Korea’s abandonment of both nuclear and missile programs. Kim Jong Il blamed the United States for its threats and for imposing trade and travel sanctions on his country. Eventually however in 2007, North Korea agreed to halt their nuclear operations if the United States would resume sending fuel and would remove them from the “sponsors of terrorism” list (Boghani, 2018).

Three months after Barack Obama took office in 2009, North Korea sent a rocket into space to put a satellite there. This violated resolutions set forth by the United Nations so again, sanctions were imposed, and North Korea retaliated by conducting another nuclear test, this time underground. More sanctions followed, and the country had just begun to consider talks again when Kim Jong Il died unexpectedly. The new ruler, Kim Jong Un would step up the pace of North Korea’s nuclear program. A second attempt to put a satellite in space resulted in the United States suspending food aid to the country. By the end of 2012, North Korea was able to successfully put a satellite into orbit, claiming it was for peaceful reasons. But the Security Council rebuked the action and imposed travel bans and more sanctions on assets for North Korea. This did little to deter Kim Jong Un. He continued with nuclear testing, achieving more powerful results each time. In 2016 the country maintained that it had created and tested a hydrogen bomb (Boghani, 2018).

With the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017, came more threats of nuclear engagement with North Korea. Kim Jong Un seemed even less deterred with Trump’s threats as the country conducted successful across continent missile tests and its most powerful nuclear test. Trump reacted by threatening to destroy the entire country to which Jong Un responded that the United States would pay significantly. Both leaders engaged in name-calling rhetoric that seemingly put progress for mended relations at a standstill. But in 2018, South Korea invited North Korea’s athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics. Jong Un accepted and sent a representative on his behalf to the games. The North Korean official attending made it known that Kim Jong Un was now willing to talk with the United States. In March of that same year President Trump agreed to meet with Jong Un to discuss the future of its nuclear program.

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The Kim Dynasty and North Korea's Power Structure. (2021, Apr 18). Retrieved from

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