Kim Jong-un: beyond the personality cult

The secretive North Korean leader celebrates his birthday - but even his year of birth remains a mystery

Kim Jong-un
(Image credit: KNS/AFP/Getty)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is reportedly celebrating his birthday today, but no one is able to confirm how old the 'Great Successor' is, as much of his life remains shrouded in mystery.

Worshipped and feared in equal measure at home, criticised and ridiculed abroad – what do we know about one of the world's most secretive leaders?

Early years

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(Image credit: 2009 AFP)

Little is known about Kim's early life, not even his exact date of birth. Most commentators believe he was born in either early 1983 or 1984, the youngest son of previous leader Kim Jong-il and his third wife Ko Yong-hi.

Kim was never seen in public as a boy and very few people even knew he existed until he reached his 20s and began making public appearances alongside his father. He attended primary school abroad in Switzerland, along with his brothers.

At the International School of Berne, Kim posed as the son of a Korean diplomat, according to US TV network PBS. A former classmate revealed that Kim was a keen basketball player as well as a talented artist, drawing intricate pictures from memory.

However, because he was two years older than the other pupils and clearly stood out as foreigner, the future leader had few friends. "He was fairly isolated due to the language barrier, so he was always on his own," his classmate said.

He returned home in his late teens to finish his education at a military academy in Pyongyang.

As a leader

(Image credit: 2012 AFP)

Few believed Kim would take over from his father, with most top officials predicting that his older brother Kim Jong-nam would be their father's successor. However, he apparently fell out of favour "after being arrested in Tokyo in 2001 while travelling to Disneyland on a forged passport", the Daily Telegraph reports.

So, when Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in 2011 Kim was immediately hailed as the "Great Successor", becoming the third generation of his family to lead the country.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim's four year rule has been characterised by "international self-isolation, hostility towards South Korea and its capitalist allies, an all-pervasive personality cult, and ruthless elimination of all domestic opposition," The Independent reports.

One of the most notorious acts of his leadership was the execution of his aunt Kim Kyong-hui and uncle Jang Song-thaek who were allegedly found guilty of plotting a coup.

Earlier this year, the UN published a report which concluded that North Korean officials, possibly including Kim himself, should face international justice for crimes comparable to "Nazi era atrocities," including the systematic torture, starvation and killing of its people.

North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests under Kim's leadership, saying in the past that it requires nuclear capabilities to defend itself against Western imperialism. This has caused predictable alarm in South Korea and the West, with the UN Security Council repeatedly condemning such acts.

According to the US state department, North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world, with an estimated active military force of up to 1.2 million military personnel.

His personal life

(Image credit: 2012 AFP)

Kim's personal life is especially cloaked in secrecy. He is believed to have married Ri Sol-ju (pictured above) in 2009, but it was only announced by state media in 2012, a South Korean intelligence official told CNN. She is reportedly a singer in the Unhasu Orchestra, one of Kim's favourite groups.

The couple have regularly attended public events together and have even been seen watching a concert featuring Disney characters.

In September last year, the US basketball star Dennis Rodman confirmed that the Kim's had a baby daughter, and even revealed her name to The Guardian. "I held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms Ri as well. He's a good dad and has a beautiful family."

Kim and Rodman have reportedly become close friends, bonding over their mutual love of basketball.

His health

(Image credit: 2012 AFP)

In recent months, a prolonged absence fuelled rumours that Kim was suffering from serious health problems. State media uncharacteristically admitted that the leader was suffering from "discomfort" but did not provide further details. He recently returned to the public eye, walking with the aid of cane.

Kim is overweight, is routinely pictured smoking and has a history of diabetes and heart disease. His father's heart attack was, "apparently linked to his appreciation of expensive French brandy and fine cuisine", the Daily Telegraph reports, and Kim reportedly has similar tastes.

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