Why you should care
Because the regime is more than one man.
Opacity is North Korea’s calling card, so much so that the only confirmation of the supreme leader’s birth date is the word of his aunt, a defector to the United States. We know Kim Jong Un loves basketball and nukes, saber-rattling and surprises. But our knowledge comes from defectors and carefully curated images beamed out from the poverty-stricken totalitarian state.
As such, there’s little for a curious outside world to latch onto other than the portly 34-year-old (we think) dictator. His possible meeting with President Donald Trump in the coming weeks could be the summit of the decade — particularly when you consider the characters involved. And while the world knows the personalities, the rivalries and the intimate activities of Trump’s inner circle, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains an enigma.
What would happen if Kim were to fall ill or catch a sniper’s bullet? While Kim’s grip on power appears stable — thanks partly to a ruthless purge following his ascent after his father’s 2011 death — strange things happen in geopolitics. For example, Muammar Gaddafi certainly seemed to have a stranglehold on Libya a few years ago.
It would be folly for us to predict the dominoes that would fall if Kim were to leave the scene. But in the coming days, OZY will give you a glimpse of the most compelling figures at Kim’s power table, a deeper look past the West’s cartoon Rocket Man. Welcome to Life Beyond Kim.
#1: How the Soviet Union Started It All
For some context, we’ll take a trip to the earth-shaking year of 1945, when a 33-year-old Kim Il Sung gave a halting speech written by his Soviet handlers in Pyongyang. The anti-Japanese guerrilla, who had just moved back from Russia, was an unlikely candidate to launch a dynasty. But the man who would become Eternal President of the Republic had the backing of the superpower next door.
#2: Hyon Song Wol: The Pop Star Propagandist
This starlet is a Party girl, not a party girl. At least that’s the current image of one of North Korea’s brightest stars. A leader of North Korea’s version of the Spice Girls, Hyon was at one point rumored to have been executed amid a sex scandal. But Kim’s former girlfriend (they first met as teenagers) returned to the public eye dressed for business — and now carries a powerful cultural position helping shape the popular image of the regime.
#3: Ri Pyong Chol: The Rocket Man’s Rocket Man
He may or may not be the grandfather or great uncle of Kim Jong Un’s wife. But what we do know about Ri is that he holds the keys to Kim’s favorite toys: North Korea’s nuclear weapons. A longtime Air Force leader, Ri has controlled the regime’s drones and fighter jets, and now, though there have been myriad missteps, the Ri-guided nuclear program is fearsome enough to be a massive bargaining chip with Trump.
#4: Ri Su Yong: The Most Trusted Adviser
No shadowy regime would be complete without a trusted cadre of advisers, and Ri is perhaps the most trusted of them all for Kim Jong Un. He was a father figure to the leader-to-be in Switzerland, when Kim was in school and Ri was ambassador to the U.N. mission in Geneva. After serving as a combative foreign minister, Ri now is a James Baker–like Pyongyang mover who has the leader’s ear.
#5: Kim Yo Jong: The Sister-in-Chief
She dazzled the world as the North’s version of Ivanka Trump at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and she’s at the center of delicate talks between two nations that have been at war, technically, for nearly 70 years. The leader’s younger sister blossomed from an odd child to a diplomatic force, and now at age 30(ish) has come into her own, claiming a similar role to her aunt under Kim Jong Il — though it remains to be seen whether Kim Yo Jong boasts enough of a ruthless streak to thrive amid the Hermit Kingdom’s power plays.