As North Korea intensified its belligerent rhetoric in recent weeks -- threatening South Korea, Japan and the United States -- much attention has focused on the country's leader Kim Jong Un. However, little is known about the nation's young head of state. Built on an identity cult centered around the Kim family, North Korea's propaganda machine has carefully monitored what has been released about Kim's private life.
Kim Jong Un had rarely appeared in public before taking over the reigns after the death of his father in December 2012. The lack of information left analysts and policy makers around the world guessing what Kim's policies would look like, and many hoped for a fresh breeze in Pyongyang, for a new leadership that would focus the nation's resources on feeding its population instead of funding the army. North Korea's current warmongering discourse, however, has proved that Kim's strategies deviate little from those of his predecessors.
Kim Jong Il kept his family life shrouded in secrecy and very little is known about the childhood of the younger Kim, his two brothers and four sisters. Some students who attended a Swiss international school in the nineties believe their fellow-student, a boy known as Pak Un, was in fact Kim Jong Un. Pak Un had been introduced as the son of a North Korean embassy official and was known as a smart student who mastered German and English.
According to a Washington Post report, Pak had one particular obsession, basketball, and on the court the otherwise quiet boy showed a different side.
Though generally quiet in class and sometimes awkward, particularly around girls, Pak Un showed a different personality on the basketball court, former friends recalled. He fell in with a group of mostly immigrant kids who shared his love of the National Basketball Association. Kovacevic, who shot hoops with the North Korean most days, said Pak Un was a fiercely competitive player.
Upon returning to Pyongyang, Kim is believed to have enrolled at the capital's military academy. Reports on his whereabouts remained scarce until the late 2000s, when rumors about his father's deteriorating health swirled. Time magazine writes that Kim Jong Il's inner circle started to groom the younger Kim for succession in 2008, when he was put in charge of the police and intelligence services.
Up until then few analysts had placed their bets on Kim's chances of succession. As Newsweek explains, first in line was Kim Jong Nam. Yet Kim's oldest brother fell out of grace after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport, telling immigration officers he wanted to visit Disneyland Tokyo. Kim Jong Chol, Kim's second sibling, is said to have been considered too "effeminate" to make for a suitable heir.
Overweight and suspected of being diabetic, Jong Nam has since told reporters that he has no interest in politics and seems more concerned about acquiring, or at least wearing, bling. He has been seen in Macau sporting Armani caps, and Bur-berry and Polo Ralph Lauren shirts and sunglasses.
In what appeared to be a move to solidify his position as heir-apparent, Kim was made a general in the North Korean army in 2011 and appointed as vice chairman of the Central Military Committee.
When Kim Jong Il died in December 2012, political leaders close to the ruling family were quick to consolidate power in the hands of the younger Kim. Immediately after his father's death, he was appointed as supreme commander of the military, head of the North Korean Worker's Party and the party's Central Committee, the Associated Press reported at the time. The inexperienced leader appeared to be counseled by his aunt, Kim Jong Il's sister Kim Kyong Hui, and her powerful husband Jang Song Thaek. Kim's aunt and uncle became crucial figures in the transition of power, and according to John Park of the U.S. Institute for Peace the powerful couple are "key pillars" of the young leader's reign.
While Kim has adopted a foreign policy strategy strikingly similar to that of his late father -- threatening to attack its southern neighbor as well as the U.S. in order to receive diplomatic concessions -- his relation with the media has been quite different. While his father kept his family out of the public eye, Kim often appears in public with his fashionable new wife, Ri Sol Ju. In July 2012 for example, Kim and Ri stepped out to visit an amusement park in Pyongyang.
The AP reported:
In North Korea, it was a carefully choreographed appearance aimed at showing Kim Jong Un as a friendly, modern leader, no different from the heads of other countries. It also provided a sharp contrast to the intensely private face his father Kim Jong Il had portrayed during his 17 years in power.
And only last month, Kim received retired basketball player Dennis Rodman. The extraverted former Bulls-player called the Supreme Leader "an awesome guy" and claimed he had learned that Kim has a newborn daughter.
Want to learn more about North Korea? Check out the following HuffPost explainers:
- HuffPost's overview of North Korea's most prominent political figures and institutions.
- Pyongyang's craziest threats.