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The Despotic Dynasty: A Family Tree of North Korea’s Kim Clan

6 minute read

The death of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia on Feb. 13 eliminates another member of the Kim family, which has ruled North Korea with an iron fist for more than 70 years. Current Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is suspected to have ordered the murder of his estranged older half-brother, who died en route to the hospital after two women held what police believe to be a poison-soaked rag over his face at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

It is unclear if there was a direct motive for the 45-year-old’s assassination, as he never expressed any desire to overthrow his younger sibling. However, Kim Jong Nam’s close ties to Beijing — Pyongyang’s increasingly reluctant sponsor — may have vexed the young despot. In any case, his death sheds light on the dysfunctional and murderous dynasty whose tireless pursuit of nuclear weapons could threaten the whole world.


Kim Il Sung

An image of North Korean Leader Kim Il Sung dated July 1976.
An image of North Korean Leader Kim Il Sung dated July 1976.STR—AFP/Getty Images

Still revered to as the “Ever-Victorious Generalissimo” and “The Great Sun of Life,” Kim Il Sung is the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and fashioned the national ideology of “juche,” or patriotic self-reliance. Born on April 15, 1912, in Mangyondae, near Pyongyang, he grew to prominence as a guerrilla fighter against Japanese occupation, and later with the Soviet army during World War II. He ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death on July 8, 1994. Kim Il Sung remains widely adored, with over 500 statues across the country in his honor. All citizens are required to wear a pin with his image, and keep his portrait in their homes fastidiously clean (on pain of excommunication and banishment.)

Kim Jong Suk

Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk
Leader Kim Il Sung (left) seen with Miss Kim Jong Suk when they were engaged in the anti-Japanese guerillas.North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency—AP

Kim Jong Suk, first wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il, is lauded as North Korea’s exemplary communist wife and revolutionary. According to local folklore, Kim Jong Suk excelled at fighting, shooting rifles and riding horses, as well as more maternal duties, like sewing, cooking and obeying her infallible husband. Infallibility didn’t stretch to faithfulness, however, and Kim Jong Suk reportedly fell into depression due the numerous dalliances of the “Sun of the Nation.” Kim Jong Suk died aged just 29 in Pyongyang in 1949, most likely during childbirth, or as the official version goes, due to “the hardships she had endured during the years as a guerrilla fighter.”

Kim Jong Il

File photo taken in 1992 shows North Korean leader
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (R) and then-leader, Jong-il's father, Kim Il-Sung (L) inspect a soccer ground in Pyongyang in 1992.AFP/Getty Images

Owing to the miasma of his father’s cult of personality, few hard facts are known about the life of Kim Jong Il, who ruled as “dear leader” from July 8, 1994 until Dec 17, 2011. State legend says that he was born at secret military camp on Mount Paektu — the mythical birthplace of the Korean people —on Feb. 16, 1941. However, historians believe he actually came into the world in Soviet Siberia, registered under the name Yuri Irsenovich Kim. An obsessive film buff, he reportedly had a collection of more than 20,000 video tapes. And according to his official biography, his first ever round of golf in 1994 recorded a 38-under par round that included 11 holes in one. In less illustrious times, his gross economic mismanagement contributed to North Korea’s horrific famine of 1994-8, during which between 240,000 and 3,500,000 people died.

Kim Kyong Hui

Kim Kyong Hui
Kim Kyong Hui, the aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, front row center, at the ruling Workers' Party representatives meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sept. 28, 2010.Korean Central News Agency—AP

The only daughter of Kim Il Sung, Kim Kyong Hui had been a fairly visible figure in North Korean leadership circles during the reign of her brother, Kim Jong Il. Her political patronage was seen as instrumental in ensuring Kim Jong Un took charge in 2011. However, she had semi-retired when her influential husband, Chang Song Thaek, was purged by her nephew two years later. Rumors that she had been similarly bumped off have proved unfounded.

Jang Song Thaek

N. Korea's Jang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek pictured on Feb. 16, 2012.Korean Central News Agenc—Kyodo

As vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek was considered second in rank only the Supreme Leader, and reportedly took charge of national affairs when Kim Jong Il was ailing towards the end of his life. But although originally considered a “key policy adviser” to Kim Jong Un, Jang was soon purged by the young tyrant, stripped of all his posts and expelled from the Workers’ Party. His photos were removed from official media and, on Friday, Dec. 13, state media announced he had been executed. Rumors that he was torn apart by a pack of wild dogs, or gunned down by anti-aircraft guns after watching his family suffer the same fate, have never been verified.

Song Hye Rim

Kim Jong-Nam dressed in an army uniform poses with
Kim Jong-Nam dressed in an army uniform poses with his maternal grandmother in January 1975.AFP/Getty Images

Song Hye Rim is a former North Korean actress who became the favorite mistress of Kim Jong Il, and gave birth to Kim Jong Nam in 1971. But their relationship was never approved by Kim Il Sung, who was apparently unaware of his grandson’s existence until he was four years old. Song travelled to Russia during the 1980s for medical care, and reportedly defected to the West after the Soviet Union crumbled. She is believed to have died on May 18, 2002.

Kim Jong Nam

Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, walks out of a police van before boarding an airplane at Narita International Airport in Narita, east of Tokyo.Shizuo Kambayashi—AP

Any chance Kim Jong Nam had of succeeding his father, Kim Jong Il, was dashed in May 2001 when he was arrested at Tokyo’s Narita airport with a forged Dominican passport. (He later claimed he wanted to visit Disneyland there.) However, despite being the oldest male heir, Kim Jong Nam always had a liberal bent that put him at odds with his family’s despotic legacy, which he ascribed to his lengthy education in Europe. The years until his death were spent mostly in Macau and various Asian party spots. That was until Feb. 13, when the 45-year-old’s life ended after an incident at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un, Ri Sol Ju
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, right, waves to the crowd as they inspect the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang on July 25, 2012.AP

It’s now hard to imagine that many people actually hoped Kim Jong Un might take a softer touch than his tyrannical father and grandfather. The youngest son of Kim Jong Il has purged his uncle, is chief suspect in the murder of his half-brother, and has accelerated his nation’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Power has coalesced around the portly, Swiss-educated 33-year-old, and neither Washington nor Beijing knows how to bring him to heel.

Kim Han Sol

NK leader''s half brother assassination
Kim Han Sol, son of Kim Jong Nam, walks at a college in France in Aug. 2013.Yonhap News/Newscom

Born in Pyongyang in 1995, Kim Han Sol moved to Macau as a child after his father, Kim Jong Nam, fell from grace. On social media, the 21-year-old has expressed guilt for his family’s role in the continuing suffering of the North Korean people, and on occasion appeared to criticize his uncle. In 2011, he was accepted by Li Po Chun United World College to study in Hong Kong, but was denied a visa. He reportedly joined the UWC campus in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, instead. It is not known if he has traveled to Kuala Lumpur to visit his father’s body, though Malaysian police have vowed to protect him if he does.

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com