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The Peninsula

Comparing the Successions: Kim Jong Il vs. Kim Jong Un

Published November 1, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Luke Herman

As the Kim Jong Un regime completes its eighth month in power following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, there seem to be a number of differences between how this succession is being carried out with how it was carried out in 1994. For one thing, it has proceeded at a much more rapid pace: excluding the December 2011 appearances where KJU visited KJI’s bier, he has made 101 appearances in eight months. By comparison, KJI made 88 appearances total from July 1994 – December 1996 as he went through a three-year mourning period.

This piece will attempt to lay out other differences between the successions, possible reasons for them and prospects going forward. In this article I will lay out the background of each succession, examine which elites were important (using on-the-spot guidance inspection data), as well as examining who rose and who fell (and who died) during the respective periods. In addition, I will take a close look at the reemergence of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) under Kim Jong Un, the growing visibility of the security services and what both could mean going forward.


The Kim Jong Il Succession (1994-1996)

The groundwork for the Kim Jong Il succession was laid for nearly twenty years before he formally took over power. He was first mentioned in the North Korean press in the 1970s, but was referred to as the “party center.” His first true public introduction was in 1980 when he appeared at the Sixth Party Congress and was given a number of important party positions. Eventually, as Kim Il Sung aged and declined in health he began to take over the day-to-day affairs of running North Korea, and became Supreme Commander of the armed forces in 1992. Despite this preparation, the regime was not fully prepared for Kim Il Sung’s sudden death on July 8, 1994. There were eleven days between the death and actual funeral, supposedly to allow for the public to fully express their grief but more likely because the regime needed to figure out exactly what message they wanted to convey.

As Ken Gause discusses in his excellent North Korea under Kim Chong-il, there were two major (but related) splits that Kim Jong Il had to overcome as he took the throne: 1) a generational split between the old revolutionaries that fought alongside KIS in Manchuria and in the Korean War and the newer army officials who KJI had become close to, and 2) a hierarchical split that had existed for a number of years as both KIS and KJI had their own lines of communication and power. Failure to adequately deal with either would likely have doomed KJI. He approached both cautiously, keeping in place much of the old guard while consolidating his own rule through appointments of loyalists at lower levels. After the death of O Jin U, who had been Minister of the People’s Armed Forces for almost two decades, he replaced him with Choe Gwang (at that time Chief of the KPA General Staff), another old timer. However, he replaced Choe with a relative unknown, Kim Yong Chun, who had risen through the ranks rapidly (reportedly after putting down a coup attempt by the VI Corps).

The KJI succession came at a particularly difficult time for North Korea. Though the first nuclear crisis had been peacefully settled with the Agreed Framework, the famine (called the “Arduous March” in North Korea) was just beginning. The Party and State institutions that were responsible for economic decision-making and food distribution essentially stopped functioning effectively. KJI, who preferred to rule through informal networks in any case, therefore turned to the only body that seemed capable of responding – the military. Along with the nuclear crisis, the famine was a major catalyst for the songun (military-first) policy that would eventually take hold.

The Kim Jong Un Succession

The KJU succession began in earnest following KJI’s stroke in August 2008. It was after this point that a large number of reshuffles were carried out in 2009 (notably Ri Yong Ho became Chief of the KPA General Staff at this time) and the younger Kim was reportedly accompanying his father on inspection tours (though he was not publicly identified). His formal introduction to the public came in September 2010 at the Third Party Conference, which was the first major party meeting in 30 years. Though his only party post was as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), he was also named a four-star General and was reported to be working closely with the Ministry of State Security. After this point he appeared frequently with KJI until the latter’s death last December. There was an eleven-day period between his death and the funeral, the same as with Kim Il Sung, and (as many remarked at the time) the funeral ceremony was remarkably similar in style to the KIS funeral.

There are two major differences in how the successions have unfolded. First, the KJU succession is moving at a far advanced pace compared to his father’s. As mentioned before, KJU has already made more public appearances in eight months than his father made in his first two and a half years. Additionally, the mourning period was officially one hundred days as opposed to three years. Finally, KJU acquired the functional equivalent of his father’s titles four months after KJI’s death, and did so through formal means at the Fourth Party Conference in April of this year. KJI, on the other hand, became General Secretary of the WPK in October 1997 by Central Committee and Central Military Committee decree.

Second, and likely related, the regime is facing nothing like the crises that racked the country from 1994-1996. Harsh sanctions remain in place, but the country has adapted and actually experienced modest growth last year. Relations with China are much improved since the mid-1990s and give the regime a buffer against something like the famine reoccurring. Furthermore, the security situation has improved since the regime built a nuclear deterrent to complement its conventional deterrent.

The Elites

This section will detail the elites who appeared with both KJI and KJU most frequently (over 20% of the time) during the post-succession period we are examining. It gives one a good, though not complete by any means, idea of who was being featured prominently at the time, as well as their positions (and any promotions that they received during this time).


–> indicates the elite was promoted from lower rank to higher during this time

KPA = Korean People’s Army

GPB = General Political Bureau

GSD = General Staff Department

CMC = Central Military Commission

NDC = National Defense Commission

Kim Jong Il (July 1994-December 1996)

Elites Who Appeared with Kim Jong Il Over 20%



Position Visits %
Kim Ki Nam Party Secretary (Propaganda); Director (Unknown Department) 47 53%
Kye Ung Thae Party Secretary (Security); Politburo (Alternate) 40 45%
Choe Thae Bok Party Secretary (Education); Director (Education); Politburo (Alternate) 40 45%
Pak Jae Gyong Mil. KPA Col. General; KPA GPB Propaganda Chief 40 45%
Jo Myong Rok Mil. KPA General–> Vice Marshal; Air Force Commander –> KPA GPB Director 36 41%
Kim Yong Sun Party Secretary (International); SPA Unification Committee Chair 36 41%
Kim Kuk Thae Party Secretary (Cadre); Director (Cadre) 34 39%
Ri Ha Il Mil. KPA General –> Vice Marshal; CMC Member; NDC Member 32 36%
Kim Ha Gyu Mil. KPA Col. General –> General; Artillery commander 30 34%
Choe Gwang Mil. KPA Marshal; Chief of the KPA General Staff–> Minister of People’s Armed Forces 28 32%
Kim Myong Guk Mil. KPA General; KPA Deputy Chief of General Staff (Operations Division Chief); CMC Member 26 30%
Hyon Chol Hae Mil. KPA Col. General –> General; KPA GPB Director (Organization) 24 27%
Kim Kwang Jin Mil. KPA Vice Marshal; First Vice Minister of People’s Armed Forces; NDC Member 23 26%
Ri Ul Sol Mil. KPA Vice Marshal –> Marshal; NDC Member; CMC Member; Guard Commander 22 25%
Kim Jung Rin Party Secretary (Worker’s Orgs) 20 23%
Kim Yong Chun Mil. KPA General –> Vice Marshal; KPA GS Director (Logistics)–> KPA GS Chief 20 23%
Total: Party (6), Military (10)

Out of the 16 most frequent accompaniers, 10 were military and the rest held high-level positions within the WPK. Three things are notable from the table:

1)      Clearly we see the beginning of a shift towards the military, and notably a shift towards the next generation military as opposed to the old revolutionaries. Though KJI was cautious in appointing 1.5 / 2nd / 3rd generation military men to the high level positions, nine of his most frequent accompaniers were from this group, while two (Choe Gwang and Ri Ul Sol) were first generation revolutionaries.

2)      The two most frequent accompaniers during this period were the WPK members responsible for propaganda (Kim Ki Nam) and security (Kye Ung Thae), two areas that were critical to a successful succession.

3)      There are no state officials at the top of this list (the first one who is classified as such is Yang Hyong Sop at 19th most frequent). State officials and institutions, not counting the NDC, were simply not a priority at this point.

Kim Jong Un (January 2012 – July 2012)

  Elites Who Appeared with Kim Jong Un Over 20%



Position Visits %
Jang Song Thaek Party Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Full); NDC Vice Chairman; CMC Member; Director (Administration) 62 61%
Choe Ryong Hae Party Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Presidium); NDC Member; CMC Member–> CMC Vice Chairman; KPA GPD Director; KPA General –> Vice Marshal; Secretary 50 50%
Ri Yong Ho Mil. Former Politburo (Presidium); Former KPA GSD Chief; Former CMC Vice Chairman; Former Vice Marshal 35 35%
Kim Ki Nam Party Politburo (Full); Secretary (Propaganda); Director (Propaganda) 32 32%
Kim Jong Gak Mil. KPA GPB First Vice Director –> Minister of People’s Armed Forces; KPA General –> Vice Marshal; NDC Member; CMC Member; Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Full) 28 28%
Pak To Chun Party KPA Col. General –> General; NDC Member; Politburo (Full); Secretary (Military Industry) 28 28%
Hyon Chol Hae Mil. KPA General –> Vice Marshal; Politburo (Full); First Vice Minister and concurrently Director of the General Logistics Bureau of the People’s Armed Forces; CMC Member 27 27%
Kim Yong Chun Mil. Vice Marshal; MPAF –> Director (Civil Defense Department); Politburo (Full); NDC Vice Chairman; CMC Member 27 27%
Choe Yong Rim State Politburo (Presidium); Premier 24 24%
Kim Won Hong Mil. Politburo (Full); NDC Member; CMC Member; MSS Director; KPA General 23 23%
Pak Jae Gyong Mil. KPA General; MPAF Deputy Director 23 23%
Kim Kyong Hui Party KPA General; Politburo (Full); Director (Light Industry) –> Director (Unknown); Secretary 21 21%
Kim Yong Nam State Politburo (Presidium); SPA President 21 21%
Choe Thae Bok Party Politburo (Full); Secretary (Education); Director (Science & Education) 20 20%
Hwang Pyong So Party Deputy Director (Organization & Guidance); KPA Col. General 20 20%
Kim Yang Gon Party Politburo (Alternate); Secretary; Director (United Front) 20 20%
Total: Party (8), Military (6), State (2)

As one would expect, the most frequent accompaniers with KJU is more balanced than under his father. Two notable observations:

  • These numbers certainly lend more credence to the theory that there is a Jang Song Thaek – Choe Ryong Hae alliance. Choe has also made a number of his own visits since being named Director of the KPA General Political Bureau.
  • Two of the top military accompaniers – Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chun –have respectively been removed and demoted. As we all know, Ri was removed in July from all his positions for “illness,” though it is more likely he was purged. Kim Yong Chun was removed from his position as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces and instead became director of the WPK Civil Defense Department – an indication that his stock has dropped significantly. The numbers show a definite shift occurring since May began– before May Ri appeared with KJU 31 times, while Kim appeared 23 times (out of 57 total appearances). The story is drastically different once May began – 4 times for Ri and 4 for Kim Yong Chun (out of 44). By contrast, the splits for Jang and Choe are 32/30 and 24/26 respectively.

Promotions, Purges and Deaths


There were a few promotions during the early KJI years, but none were related to party or state institutions; instead, they were all related to the military or security apparatuses. The most important emerged due to O Jin U’s death in February 1995. As mentioned, KJI promoted Choe Gwang from Chief of the KPA General Staff to Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, while Kim Yong Chun went from being a director of logistics in the General Staff Department to Chief of the KPA General Staff. Jo Myong Rok, who would play a major role going forward, was promoted from Commander of the KPA Air Force to Director of the General Political Bureau. Pak Ki So became commander of the important Pyongyang Defense Command. Jang Song U, brother of Jang Song Thaek, became a Deputy Director in the Guards Command (and may have essentially run the Command in place of Ri Ul Sol.) Furthermore, there were a number of promotions in the military ranks handed out by KJI.

By contrast, the promotions under KJU have also included party and state institutions. Thirteen elites were either added to the Politburo or promoted from alternate to full member or alternate to presidium member. Four were added to the NDC and five added or promoted on the CMC. There were also significant promotions in the military / security apparatuses. Kim Won Hong became Minister of State Security, Kim Jong Gak Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Hyon Yong Chol Chief of the KPA General Staff and Choe Ryong Hae Director of the KPA General Political Bureau. There were also, of course, the obligatory orders raising military rank for a number of elites. Again, the main takeaway is that the state and party institutions that languished for many years under KJI have been revitalized since his stroke, and received an additional shot in the arm under KJU.

Purges / Deaths

The first three years of KJI’s rule were relatively free of purges, though some occurred at lower levels in the security agencies. The only major events along these lines were the death of O Jin U in February 1995 and the deaths of Choe Gwang and Kim Kwang Jin in February 1997, as well as the defection of Hwang Jang Yop in the same month.

The same cannot be said for the first few months of KJU’s tenure. There have been no major deaths within the regime like KJI faced, but quite a few members have been publicly and privately removed. Most important was the aforementioned Ri Yong Ho, but April also saw the removal of a number of Politburo members (both full and alternate). This includes: Jon Pyong Ho (Secretary of the Politburo), Pyon Yong Rip (SPA Chairman), Ri Thae Nam (Vice Premier), and Kim Rak Hui (Vice Premier). Thae Jong Su, who was previously a member of the Secretariat and Director of the General Affairs Department was demoted to Chief Secretary of the South Hamgyong Province and likely lost his Politburo spot (unconfirmed as of right now). U Tong Chuk, who was (is?) First Vice Director of State Security was also removed from the Politburo, NDC and CMC; however, it remains unclear if he was purged, fell ill or is still in power but had his institutional roles taken over by Kim Wong Hong who is now head of MSS.

The Rise of the WPK

The major story of Kim Jong Un’s first eight months in power is the re-emergence of the WPK. Below is a comparison of elite appearances made during the periods under examination (for Kim Jong Il July 12, 1994 – December 31, 1996, for Kim Jong Un January 1, 2012 until July 25, 2012.) I made a list of every elite who appeared with KJI and KJU during their respective periods, assigned each elite to a particular category (party, military / security, state or provincial), and then tallied the total number of appearances each elite in that particular category made. The percentage is derived from dividing the category number by the total number.

The numbers below show that military figures appeared However, as Stephan Haggard and I have pointed out, classifying elites under Kim Jong Un is not quite as simple as it used to be, especially when it comes to the military. There are a number of elites given military rankings – up to Vice Marshal – who have no real military background, but are essentially civilians in military clothing. As can be seen in the figure below, there is a major difference in the story the data tells based on how one classifies. If one classifies based purely on holding a military ranking, it seems like the military has actually gained prominence under KJU.[1] But if we classify more accurately, it is clear that party members – based on public appearances – are appearing more frequently with KJU (though not by a large percentage).

The evidence gets stronger once we break the KJU numbers down by month as shown in Figure 2. The party and military actually track fairly closely – right up until the beginning of May, at which point we see a huge divergence. Following the April 2012 Party Conference, Aidan Foster-Carter wrote that Choe Ryong Hae’s appointment as Director of the KPA General Political Bureau was “a bid to reassert Party control over a military which under Kim Jong Il rather ruled the roost.” This data gives credence to that idea. Paired with the fact that two of the most influential military men, Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chun, were either removed or demoted as well, there definitely seems to be a pattern emerging.

For comparison purposes, we can look at a breakdown of Kim Jong Il’s appearances (note: due to the more spread out nature of his appearances, these are done by half-years instead of months). This breakdown also fits in well with what we now know about the military’s rise, though admittedly it bounces around much more.

Emergence of the Security Services

Another thing that differentiates the KJI and KJU successions is the greater public prominence of the security services, namely the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Minister of People’s Security (MPS), Guard Command (GC) and Military Security Command (MSC) (the Korean People’s Internal Security Force, which is a part of the MPS, has also been fairly prominent). For a great overview of the history and mission of each of these agencies see Ken Gause’s piece at HRNK.

The below graph compares security members based on the percentage they appeared (out of total elite appearances). It also shows what percentage of the military / security category figure they made up. (Kim Jong Il’s numbers are in blue, Kim Jong Un’s in red)

The heads of these security organizations have also been well-placed in the relevant party and state institutions.

Politburo (29 members)

CMC (19 members)

NDC (12 members)

Kim Won Hong (MSS) Kim Won Hong (MSS) Kim Won Hong (MSS)
Ri Myong Su (MPS) Yun Jong Rin (GC) Ri Myong Su (MPS)
Kim Chang Sop

(MSS – Political Bureau)Ri Myong Su (MPS) Ri Pyong Sam (KPISF)

Total = 14%

Total = 16%

Total = 17%

It should also be pointed out that Jang Song Thaek, who oversees party control of these organizations through his position as Director of the Administration Department, sits on all three institutions.

How does this fit into a shift towards greater party control and a shift away from the military-first policy? Because the security organizations will all play an essential role in ensuring the military does not become a source of dissent. They may also see a chance to increase their own stature, especially as money that was once allocated specifically to the military is freed up.


Given the preceding paragraphs, it’s fairly clear that the KJU succession has been undertaken in a far different way from his father’s. While most analysts were skeptical that an untested 28 (or 29) year old could successfully take control, from the outside (an important qualifier when talking about North Korea) it seems like he has successfully begun the process of consolidating power. He was aided in this process greatly by the security and economic situation, both of which were not nearly as tumultuous as when his father took over. Another overlooked aspect is that many of the same people running this succession were around for the last one, including Kim Ki Nam (propaganda), Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek, It seems likely that they learned a great deal from their previous experience and have used that to their advantage in carrying out this succession. The result has been far smoother than anyone expected. However, whether or not this “smoothness” can translate into meaningful change within the country is anyone’s guess.


Gause, Kenneth E. Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State.  Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012.

Gause, Kenneth E. . North Korea under Kim Chong-Il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change.  Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International 2011.

Kim, Insoo, and Min Yong Lee. “Predictors of Kim Jong-Il’s on-the-Spot Guidance under Military-First Politics.” North Korean Review 8, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 93-104.

North Korea Leadership Watch.

Korean Institute for National Unification. Kim Jong Il Hyunjijido Donghyang 1994-2011

(Analysis of Kim Jong Il’

Ministry of Unification.

[1] Note: Jang Song Thaek has not been classified as a military elite in either  despite being pictured in uniform because his ranking has never been reported by North Korean media. 

Photo from zennie62’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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