North Korea: How Kim Jong Un's Family Was Picked by Russia to Lead and Threaten America

23rd anniversary of demise of Kim Il Sung
After the demise of Kim Il Sung, North Korea was under the dictatorship of his son, Kim Jong Il. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Headless Beast: NORTH KOREA AFTER KIM" on July 18, 1994 after Kim Il Sung, then dictator of North Korea, died. In light of recent news involving North Korea and their threats against the US, Newsweek is republishing the story.

For 46 years he had endured, presiding over the world's strangest, most isolated society with equal parts ruthlessness and cunning. The consummate dictator, he had long since outlasted the men with whom he had come of age, men now consigned to history's ash heap: Stalin, who installed him, and Mao, his ally in one of the 20th century's bloodiest wars. The cold war had ended, and even his old friend Deng Xiaoping of China became a capitalist. And still there he was, his economy collapsing all about him, refusing to let the world treat him as some kind of crazy uncle in the attic. Kim Il Sung demanded that the world deal with him on his terms. And with a nuclear shell game that may have been his regime's only shot at salvation, that's what he made it do. In the last month he used the nuclear card to get former president Jimmy Carter to come to North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, and pronounce him vigorous and ready to do business -- if Washington would stop its nasty talk about sanctions. He proposed what would have been a historic summit meeting with the enemy to the south, Republic of Korea President Kim Young Sam. Finally, he got the United States to come back to the table, and last Friday in Geneva representatives of his government met with diplomats of the United States in talks that could mean the end of isolation for North Korea.

Awkward moment: Then, stunningly, the end. The so-called Great Leader, father of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, his heir, died of what Pyongyang Radio called a heart attack. The death of an 82-year-old man rarely qualifies as a shock. But just weeks ago Kim had seemed "alert and intelligent," according to Carter. Apparently sensing that there might be suspicions of foul play, Pyongyang announced that the cause of death had been confirmed by a pathologist.

President Clinton, who was barely out of diapers when Kim Il Sung's forces hurtled through Korea's demilitarized zone 44 years ago, got the the news at 6:80 a.m. on Saturday. For Clinton, who was in Naples at an economic summit, it was an awkward moment. He expressed his condolences to Kim's family and said he hoped the current dialogue -- restarted thanks to "Kim Il Sung's leadership" -- would continue. Left unsaid: there undoubtedly had been days since the nuclear crisis with the North began 16 months ago when Bill Clinton had wished Kim Il Sung would go away. For the young president, obsessed with domestic-policy concerns (page 27), Kim had become a foreboding reminder that the world is a dangerous place. And yet for all the torment he caused Bill Clinton, it just may be that his death has made the world even more dangerous, not less. For the time being, North Korea, possibly nuclear armed and without its paramount leader, is effectively a headless beast.

How long might that be the case? If the late Great Leader now gets his posthumous wish, the world will watch communism's first successful dynastic succession. For 80 years, Kim groomed his son, 52-year-old Kim Jong Il, to succeed him.* Now head of the armed forces and described by North Korean diplomats as running the day-to-day machinery of the government, Kim Jong Il is among the world's most shadowy figures (page 23). The most neutral term North Korea watchers use to describe him is "eccentric." At worst, in the words of one U.S. diplomat, he is "irrational, far more dangerous than his father, with no sense of how to deal with the forces and problems that surround him -- all of which are formidable. No one in his right mind wants to see Kim Jong Il in charge of a nuclear-armed North Korea."

That prospect is so daunting that some in the North Korean military are worried. Though senior officers close to the Kim family are thought to be loyal to the son, younger officers may not be. They have chafed at being under the authority of the erratic Jong Il, and could rebel at the prospect of his assuming supreme power. "This is the beginning of the end," says Lee Young Hwa, a North Korean resident in Japan and a lecturer at Kansai University. "The government will try to put the country together for a while, but great turmoil is on its way."

The turmoil could take the form of a protracted power struggle if Kim Jong Il can't establish his authority immediately. At the least, says Selig Harrison, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, who met Kim Il Sung last month, it's likely that the younger Kim will have to accommodate military leaders who are more hawkish on the nuclear standoff with the West.

That is why internal North Korean politics are now of critical importance. After their initial skepticism following Carter's visit last month, administration officials had begun to believe that one major foreign-policy problem was about to be removed. Kim Il Sung, they had been convinced, was serious about resolving the impasse over the North's effort to build nuclear weapons. That impression was reinforced during the first day of talks with the North in Geneva last week. "The North Koreans operate in either dealmaking mode or screw-you mode," said one source. "Last week they were in deal mode."

Now, no one in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing has anything close to a firm grasp of what happens next. South Korean President Kim Young Sum convened an emergency cabinet meeting and increased the alert status of his troops. In Geneva on Saturday, the North postponed the second round of talks on the nuclear issue, but both governments left their negotiators in place, and the North did not rule out a quick resumption of the talks. Still, the Clinton administration's optimism had dissipated. "Everyone is hoping for the best, but it's hard to discount less than satisfactory scenarios at this point," said a U.S. official.

The stakes of a leadership crisis in the North are enormous. It could distract Pyongyang from resolving the nuclear impasse, deepen its formidable economic troubles and lead to unrest. And while few analysts doubt that the North's collapse is inevitable, no one -- not the Chinese, the Japanese nor the South Koreans -- wants to see it happen soon. To Seoul -- just 120 miles south of Pyongyang -- the breakdown of order in the North doesn't conjure up joyous, Berlin wall-like scenes of reunification. Instead it means streams of refugees and huge new economic burdens that South Korea, the 15th largest economy in the world, is in no position to bear. Kim Il Sung's passing, one South Korean diplomat conceded, "may well have brought that day closer."

As brutally tyrannical as he could be, Kim Il Sung retained political legitimacy after 46 years in power. One U.S. diplomat described the concussive impact of Kim's death on 22 million North Koreans as "akin to the Kennedy assassination." Beneath the comically florid language North Korean party organs use in describing Kim -- "teacher of all Koreans, sunlike leader, unifier of all peoples' -- the fact is that "Kim Il Sung was the glue that held that society together," one U.S. official said. "He was both feared and respected. That is not the case with his son."

Cold peace: Born in 1912, Kim Il Sung went to the Soviet Far East in the 1930s to train with Stalin's military during the war against Japan, which had occupied the Korean peninsula since 1910. The North makes much of Kim, the heroic soldier. But whether he actually fought against the Japanese is a matter of debate. What's clear is that Stalin believed Kim was trustworthy, and after the Soviet invasion of the peninsula in 1945, installed him as the Communist leader in the North. He was still only in his mid-30s, but within five years he managed to persuade both Stalin and Mao Zedong that he could expand communism's reach in Northeast Asia by invading and defeating the South. On June 25, 1950, he launched a war that over its three-year-course would claim the lives of 33,650 Americans, 520,000 North Koreans and 415,000 South Koreans. And place names like Heartbreak Ridge in American military folklore.

During the cold peace that ensued, Kim remained a ruthless and intractable enemy. In 1968 his navy seized the Pueblo, a U.S. intelligence ship that had sailed into the North's waters, and held the crew hostage for 11 months. In 1988 a bomb planted by the North, and apparently intended for South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, exploded during a diplomatic meeting in Burma. Seventeen South Korean officials were killed. And in 1987, a terrorist team trained in the North blew up KAL Flight 858, killing 115.

At home, Kim consolidated his authority by keeping the military on his side. Thanks in part to massive levels of assistance from the Soviets and the Chinese, the North now has a formidable 1 million-man army. At the same time, he ruled through his personal brand of ideology, known as juche, or self-reliance. In no other communist regime did the cult of personality become as intense. Kim's picture is everywhere in the North, and school children are taught that he is responsible for nothing less than the daily sunrise. No dissent is broached. "It is the most tightly policed regime imaginable," said one North Korea watcher. "If there are cells of dissenters in schools or in factories waiting around to seize this moment, we don't know about them."

Unwelcome burden: But for Kim, his tightly controlled world began to erode with the end of the cold war. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev opened diplomatic relations with South Korea, and soon Soviet checks stopped arriving. The Chinese, too, though still publicly supportive of their old comrade, grew more irritated by his unwillingness to consider some of the economic reforms that Beijing adopted in the 1980s.

Still, Kim's authority did not wane. Among many North Koreans, the fear and reverence endured, even as conditions worsened. Many North Korea watchers believe, however, that he knew the deteriorating economy was a time bomb -- that not even the world's most efficient police state could hold back collapse if people were going hungry. Thus he was led to the nerve-racking game of nuclear blackmail he had played with the world for the last 16 months -- and that issue now falls into the uncertain hands of his son.

To the day of his death, American officials were divided over whether Kim was willing to deal away his nuclear program in return for diplomatic recognition and economic benefits. Some analysts point to speeches Kim recently made: for the first time he acknowledged the country's economic difficulties and hinted that foreign trade might help. Others-particularly Pentagon and CIA analysts -- believe he was taking Clinton for a ride -- buying time to develop a weapons program by putting off International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and trying to negotiate with the United States, with no intention of giving up what he had built.

But senior U.S. State Department officials believe that in his final weeks, Kim made it clear that his intention was to resolve the nuclear crisis in return for better relations and some economic aid. "What he told Jimmy Carter amounts to his dying wish," said one U.S. official last week. Whether that is true or not still matters. Precisely because Kim Jong Il does not command his father's authority, some U.S. analysts argue, makes him unlikely to alter a course set by his father. Thus, if the younger Kim is to take over and stay in office, he will probably resume negotiations with the United States shortly after the funeral, and even reschedule the summit with Kim Young Sam.

Clinton administration sources expect that to happen. They believe that the fears about Kim Jong Il may prove to be more hype than anything else. Nor are they necessarily convinced that a potentially destabilizing power struggle is imminent. The North Koreans, they argue, have had 20 years to prepare for this succession -- and are now in the process of carrying it out. "There are tantalizing signals that they actually have a plan here to carry out a succession," says an administration aide. According to this view, Kim Il Sung moved in what turned out to be his last year to deal with the doubts about Kim Jong II: the sudden re-emergence of Kim Il Sung's 71-year-old younger brother last December as a vice president, for example, may have been meant to reassure older military leaders and party cadres who are uncomfortable with the son.

No wisdom: But parsing personnel moves in North Korea is a fool's game. It makes Soviet Kremlinology during the cold war seem like child's play. To the Clinton administration's credit, its senior advisers seemed to be focusing on what they know for sure. Said a senior administration official: "Anybody who speaks with certainty about North Korea is not speaking with wisdom." For now, both U.S. and South Korean officials claim to be somewhat reassured by the fact that nothing in the days since Kim's death seemed out of the ordinary. The North did not put troops on alert; it announced Kim's death -- at 2 a.m. Friday -- without a clumsy, Soviet-style attempt at a cover-up; and it said Kim Jong Il would head the committee arranging his father's July 17 funeral -- an event to which no outside guests will be invited. "Don't underestimate the North Korean ability to control their system," said Kil Jeong Woo of Seoul's Research Institute for National Reunification.

Control, if it means stability and a resolution to the looming nuclear threat, is precisely what Washington and Pyong-yang's neighbors in East Asia desperately want. Said one high-ranking U.S. official of Kim Jong Il: "This succession has been debated for years. We've heard the stories about what a nut this guy is. Now there is nothing we can do but wait and see." Throughout its latest crisis with the West, Noah Korea has consistently confounded the optimists. Now, after nearly 50 years in power, Kim Il Sung is gone, but the consequences of his time on earth are still a dangerous work in progress. A work in progress named Kim Jong Il. Even in death, it seemed, the world will have to deal with Mr. Kim on his terms.

A Nation's Bloody Trail

Kim Il Sung's life is inseparable from the history of North Korea. A virtual unknown in his country, he seized power with considerable help from the Soviet Union and China. Kim then spent years distancing himself from his patrons, building a nation whose self-reliance shaded into pathological isolation. Kim's life-long goal was to unite the Koreas by force -- a bloody ambition that never succeeded, but which led his country into war, economic ruin and a nuclear standoff.


Picked by Stalin to lead North Korea, Kim, a guerilla fighter against the Japanese in Manchuria during World War II, became chairman of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee.


In an effort to reunify the two Koreas, Kim launched a surprise attack on the South with the help of the Soviet Union and, later, of Mao's 1 million "volunteers."


An armistice brought a halt to the Korean War; Kim declared a victory and restructured the Communist Party to shore up his political base.


Caught in the middle of the growing Sino-Soviet rift, Kim began to separate himself from his patrons and to project himself as the leader of the non-aligned nations, including Indonesia; North Korea's economy started its slow decline.


While patrolling the Sea of Japan, North Korean sailors seized an American intelligence vessel, the USS Pueblo, and held its crew -- including naval Cmdr. Lloyd M. Bucher -- for 11 months.


A new Constitution completed Kim's move to one-man rule, and a cult of personality took root; two years later, he secretly named his son, Kim Jong II, as his heir.


Terrorists failed to assassinate the South Korean president while he visited Burma but killed 17 government officials.


North Korean agent "Mayumi" was charged with planting bombs that destroyed a Korean Air Lines jet and killed all 115 passengers and crew aboard.

Kim barred inspectors from visiting two suspected plutonium sites and threatened to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, sparking a 15-month showdown with the West.

As the nuclear crisis escalated, Washington threatened sanctions, then offered high-level talks, thanks to mediation by Jimmy Carter; Kim dies of a heart attack.

How They Square Off

While the north has clear superiority in sheer numbers, the South has more technically advanced firepower.

South KoreaNorth Korea

520,000 Army1,000,000

60,000 Navy45,000

53,000 Air Force82,000

603 Helicopters290

445 Fixed-wing aircraft730

53 Surface combat vessels326

4 Submarines25

1,800 Tanks4,200

3,550 Armored vehicles2,500

4,540 Field artillery9,080

26,000 U.S. Army--

9,500 U.S. Air Force--