Profile: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

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Who is North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un?

When Kim Jong-un took control of North Korea at just 27, the world knew very little about him - but a state-sanctioned personality cult was about to swing into action.

The young leader was born into a mythology that taught the nation the Kims were a semi-divine dynasty who had a close affinity with the near-sacred Mount Paektu that sits on the Korean-Chinese border.

By that logic, the young Kim would be naturally endowed with heroic qualities and preternatural strength. In fact when he was announced as the leader in 2011, the pronouncement made clear that he "inherits the ideology, leadership, courage and audacity of [his father] Comrade Kim Jong-il".

Audacity was not an inappropriate word to use: within five years he had executed his uncle, is widely believed to have ordered the assassination of his half-brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport, and North Korea had - so it claimed - developed a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted in an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The sombre, subdued and rounded figure that was often the subject of international ridicule in those early days has made North Korea a very clear global threat in a way his father Kim Jong-il never did.

He also did what no previous North Korean leader could - which was to bring a sitting American president to the negotiating table.

Image source, Reuters
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Kim Jong-un has received numerous official titles since becoming North Korea's leader

He had little political or military experience, but almost immediately after the death of his father, Kim was hailed as "the great successor". He was named head of the party, state and army, and took on the mantle of North Korea's Supreme Leader.

His single-minded development of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme put him in a position to bring North Korea out of isolation and onto the global negotiating table.

These led to historic talks with the US and moves to improve relations with South, but despite summits and talk of denuclearisation, there has been no progress.

'Morning Star King'

Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il and his third wife Ko Yong-hui, was born in 1983 or 1984.

Image source, AFP
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The undated image shows Kim Jong-un as a student in Switzerland

He was initially not thought to be in the frame to take up his father's mantle. Analysts focused instead on his older half-brother Kim Jong-nam and older full brother Kim Jong-chol.

However Kim Jong-nam's deportation from Japan in May 2001 and Kim Jong-chol's reported "unmanliness" improved his chances.

Analysts saw him as the heir-to-be after he was awarded a series of high-profile political posts.

Swiss-educated like his brothers, Kim Jong-un avoided Western influences, returning home when not in school and dining out with the North Korean ambassador.

After his return to Pyongyang, he is known to have attended the Kim Il-sung Military University.

His mother was thought to be Kim Jong-il's favourite wife, and she clearly doted on her son, reportedly calling him the "Morning Star King".

In August 2010, when Kim Jong-il visited China, one report said Kim Jong-un had accompanied his father on the trip. By then he was widely seen as the heir-apparent and when Kim Jong-il died, this was quickly confirmed.


Mr Kim made his first public speech as North Korea marked the 100th anniversary of the birthday of founder Kim Il-sung on 15 April 2012, praising the "military first" doctrine and vowing the time his nation could be threatened was "forever over".

Image source, KCNA
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State media showed Kim Jong-un celebrating the launch of a ballistic missile in 2017
Image source, KCNA
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Factory inspections are the mainstay of the North Korean leader's domestic media appearances

Under him, the development of North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes has continued and appears to have made rapid strides. Four more nuclear tests have taken place, bringing the regime's total to six.

Pyongyang claims it has successfully tested a miniaturised hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto a long-range missile, but experts remain divided on how advanced its programme is.

The reach of North Korea's missiles also appears to have increased. In 2017 the regime test-fired several missiles, and claimed it had tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the US - leading to a surge in tensions with the Donald Trump-led administration and an intensified UN sanctions regime.

As the animosity between the two sides rose, Mr Trump and Mr Kim engaged in an increasingly fiery war of words.

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Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un: From enemies to frenemies

Mr Trump called the North Korean leader a "rocket man on a suicide mission" while Mr Kim called the US leader a "mentally deranged US dotard".

Yet, unexpectedly, Mr Kim offered an olive branch to Seoul in his new year's address, saying he was "open to dialogue" and might send a team to the February 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

A flurry of diplomatic activity followed, with the two Koreas marching under one flag in the Olympic opening ceremony, and high-level meetings taking place between the two sides. Mr Kim also made his first known foreign trip as leader, taking a train to Beijing - North Korea's main ally and trading partner.

Mr Kim also sought to improve relations with Mr Trump, and in April 2018, the two leaders held historic face-to-face talks in Singapore aimed at the denuclearisation of North Korea.

The following year, the two leaders, joined by South Korea's Moon Jae-in, participated in an impromptu - but largely symbolic - meeting at the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.

Image source, Reuters
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President Trump is flanked by Mr Kim (L) and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in (R)

However, relations between the US and North Korea later deteriorated, with a second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in March 2019 ending abruptly without any deal. Talks stalled after the Trump administration refused to lift sanctions until Pyongyang fully abandoned its nuclear programme.

Then, in January 2020, Mr Kim said he was ending the suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests put in place during the US talks, and threatened that "the world will witness a new strategic weapon". In October that year, North Korea unveiled its biggest ICBM to date, and in January 2021 it showed off a new submarine-launched missile which it called "the world's most powerful weapon".

Meet the Kims

Domestically, Mr Kim's repeated replacement of defence ministers - there have been at least six men in the post since 2011 - has been seen by some analysts as an indication of his lack of confidence in the loyalty of the armed forces.

The most high-profile indication of a possible power struggle within the North Korean elite came in December 2013, when Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his uncle Chang Song-thaek. State media said he had been plotting a coup.

Mr Kim is also widely believed to have ordered the murder of his exiled half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in February 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Image source, AFP
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Mr Kim and Ms Ri are thought to have three children

Not much was known of Mr Kim's personal life until television footage of an unidentified woman attending events with him surfaced. In July 2012, state media announced that Mr Kim was married to "Comrade Ri Sol-ju".

Little is known of Ms Ri, but her stylish appearance led some analysts to suggest that she was from an upper-class family. Reports have suggested that Ms Ri may have been a singer who caught Mr Kim's attention during a performance.

According to South Korean intelligence, the couple have three children.

Image source, AFP
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Kim Yo-jong, Mr Kim's sister, holds a senior post in the Workers' Party of Korea

Mr Kim's sister, Kim Yo-jong, holds a senior post in the Workers' Party of Korea - and stole the limelight when she represented her brother at the Winter Olympics in the South. It is not known whether his elder brother, Kim Jong-chol, holds an official role.

Ill health and the question of succession

In April 2020, rumours about Kim Jong-un's health alleged he might have undergone a serious operation and there was uncertainty about his recovery.

The reports were based on South Korean fringe publication Daily NK and seemed to be backed up by the fact that Mr Kim had missed the anniversary of his grandfather's birthday, the almost mythical founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung.

Whether true or not, the intense speculation over the health of the obese 36-year-old reveal a crucial weakness of the North Korean dynasty.

The question of succession has the potential to bring the brutally enforced authoritarian structure to the brink of disintegration each time a leader passes away. Mr Kim's children are said to be too young to be even considered for succession.

In the framework of North Korea's political mythology, power is legitimised by the Mount Paektu bloodline going back to Kim Il-sung.

The further removed from the country founder a new generation is, the higher the chance a power struggle between party, army and government could escalate.