Who is North Korea's supreme commander Kim Jong-un?

His family's feud with the US goes back decades - and even a London hair salon can't escape his wrath

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un inspects a military unit
(Image credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

When Kim Jong-un says the words: "United States", he usually follows them with an insult - "imperialists", "aggressors", or, this week, "b******s".

This last one coincided with North Korea's test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on the eve of 4 July, which its state media lauded as a "package of gifts" for US Independence Day.

Donald Trump says the US's patience with North Korea "is [now] over" and speculation is mounting about his next move.

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Despite the headlines, Kim remains an enigma - so who is the man? And what lies beneath his hostility towards the US?

A family feud

The answer dates back to 1948 and the proclamation of North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung, the present leader's grandfather.

He set about creating a communist state, building on Russia's occupation of the north of the peninsula following the collapse of Japanese rule at the end of World War II. In these early days of the cold war, the US was wary and conflict broke out two years later.

Washington's decision to back pro-democratic forces in the south cemented North Korea's enmity - at the height of the war, Kim Il-sung reportedly likened US forces to Nazis.

Relations had barely recovered by the time Kim Il-sung's successor, Kim Jong-il, inherited power in 1994.

Still suspicious of the US, he reactivated North Korea's nuclear facilities and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

Meanwhile, president George W Bush labelled the country part of the "axis of evil", along with Iraq and Iran. The name-calling was reciprocal, says Asia Times, with Pyongyang media condemning Bush as "human trash" and "the world's worst violator of human rights".

No laughing matter

Satire, or any form of poking fun at the North Korea's leadership, is an anathema in the country, where an enforced cult of personality surrounds the Kim dynasty.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency certainly felt the need to protect their leader when US Senator John McCain called him a "crazy fat kid". His words were, they said, "a grave provocation little short of a declaration of war", reported The Daily Caller.

A few months, Pyongyang's ally China waded into the row and blocked internet searches for "Kim Fatty the Third".

Even a London hair salon has come in for Pyongyang's disapproval.

M&M Hair Academy in South Ealing devised an advertising campaign featuring an image of Kim next to the words: "Bad hair day?".

The following day, reports the BBC, the stylists received a visit from North Korean embassy officials who demanded to speak to the manager about the poster - which consequently made the national press.

Despite this, "no one asked for the 'Un'", reported the salon's owner.

Guarding his position

The Korean War was "a rare example of the Cold War turning hot", says the BBC, and more than 50 years on, it still has repercussions in Pyongyang.

According to the Kim dynasty, the West's appetite for conflict has not mellowed, with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein serving as proof that the US would attempt to destroy North Korea if it didn't have nuclear weapons, US journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote in The Observer.

Academics attribute the country's nuclear programme to its desire for security. "It is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country's basic sovereignty, of the communist regime's control and of the rule of Kim Jong-un", Professor John Delury, of the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told the BBC.

A common enemy

The US's role as enemy number one serves another purpose, reports the Washington Post: North Korea can blame its economic plight on Washington's financial sanctions.

By doing this, Kim Jong-un "dampens political unrest at home", says historian Sheila Miyoshi Jager in the New York Times, using apocalyptic threats against South Korea and its US allies to distract from its international isolation and an over-dependence on China.

Its anti-US stance has also won Pyongyang some foreign friends. Both Russia and China have supported the regime against the US throughout its history - despite their recent attempts to de-escalate tensions.

According to Jager, Beijing is eager to keep North Korea as a buffer between its own regime and US forces in South Korea - and so is unlikely to halt its support anytime soon, while Mosco has invested more heavily in the country over recent years.

Commentators agree such backing has emboldened the stance adopted by the Kim dynasty.

Is it all bluff?

It is difficult to know how much of North Korea's hostility towards the US is genuine and how much is a means of deflection and international muscle-flexing.

While his state publicly condemns US and Western culture, from popular music to denim jeans, Kim Jong-un does not appear to apply such restrictions to his own lifestyle.

His love of basketball has led to an unlikely friendship with former NBA player Dennis Rodman. The pair allegedly enjoyed fine French whisky while partying on the dictator's private island and "seven-star" Disney yacht.

Nevertheless, while such antics may raise eyebrows, it would be dangerous to take Kim's anti-US rhetoric as a bluff.

The feud is, after all, a family one.

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