A man watches a TV showing a close-up of Kim Jong Un, in Seoul, South Korea, September 30, 2010.
Credit: Jung Yeon-Je

Kim Jong Un is widely expected to be the new leader of North Korea, following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. But relatively little is known of the heir apparent, who first came to the world's attention in early 2009. GlobalPost profiles the third member of the Kim dynasty.


Kim Jong Un is the third and youngest son of Kim Jong Il. His official date of birth is January 8, 1982, but he is believed to have been born later, according to GlobalPost's North Korea specialist Bradley K. Martin, who puts Kim Jong Un at around 29.

GlobalPost analysis: Kim Jong Il dead: What's next for North Korea?

His mother was Ko Yong Hui, a Japanese-born dancer who later became Kim Jong Il's third wife, according to South Korea's Chosun Ilbo. She was the Dear Leader's favorite wife and reportedly doted on her son, who she called the "Morning Star King," said the BBC. She died of suspected breast cancer in 2004.

He has one half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, and one full brother, Kim Jong Chol.


As a teenager, Kim Jong Un was sent to a German-speaking school in Bern, Switzerland. He is said to speak competent English and German.

Former classmates at the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli school, which Kim Jong Un is believed to have attended between 1998 and 2000 under the pseudonym "Pak Un," told the Washington Post they remembered a quiet, occasionally awkward boy who loved action films and combat video games, and was a fiercely competitive basketball player.

Indeed, NBA was something of an obsession, according to the Post:

During his time in Liebefeld, friends remembered, Pak Un showed scant interest in politics and never vented publicly against Americans. Instead, he worshiped American basketball stars. He spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.

After returning to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un is reported to have attended the Kim Il Sung Military University, an officer training school. According to South Korean intelligence, he was placed under the mentorship of his uncle Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law and right-hand man.

The 'Great Successor'

Though Confucian tradition favors the eldest son, neither of Kim Jong Un's brothers seem to have been considered suitable successors to their father.

Kim Jong Nam was once caught attempting to travel to Japan on a fake passport, claiming he wanted to see Disneyland, while Kim Jong Chol was described as "like a little girl" by Kim Jong Il's former personal chef, the Guardian reported.

The same source said that Kim Jong Un, in contrast, was his father's favorite. From early 2009, when reports emerged that he had been appointed to the National Defense Commission, the youngest son began to be mythologized as the perfect continuation of the Kim dynasty, writes Bradley K. Martin:

The regime appears to have tried to position Kim Jong Un as a sort of reincarnation of Kim Il Sung, whom the young man greatly resembles physically. Barbers have given him the same haircut his grandfather sported when he took over the country in 1945 with Soviet sponsorship. There are rumors in South Korea that the young man has had plastic surgery to accentuate the resemblance. He wears the same “people’s clothing”—Mao suits—that his grandfather wore, not the zippered jumpsuits favored by Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Un made his public debut in September 2010, when he was appointed a four-star general and vice-chairman of the central military commission of North Korea's ruling Worker's Party. He subsequently made a number of high-profile appearances at his father's side.

Following his father's death, the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency hailed Kim Jong Un as "the great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche," under whose leadership Kim Jong Il's ideas were "sure to triumph."

Yet observers have expressed concern that the young heir is not ready to step into his father's shoes. Professor Jasper Kim of Ewah Women's University in Seoul, South Korea, told the BBC's Radio 4 that Kim Jong Un will struggle to win the respect of North Korea's much older military leaders—which could have dangerous consequences:

"If you're very young and you want to get the respect of military leaders who are at least double your age, you have to take an extremely hawkish stance, you have to be aggressive, and you have to take bold steps—steps that are even more bold and brazen and audicious than those of your father or grandfather before you."

Find GlobalPost's full coverage of Kim Jong Il's death here.

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