North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had reason to smile from his balcony as he saluted thousands of troops who goose-stepped in perfect formation across the square below. Then rumbled a parade of tanks, missiles and other heavy military items from his glorified arsenal of sophisticated weaponry.
Finally came the masses of cheering locals waving flags and shouting the names of Kim Jong-un and his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the deceased national founder for whom the celebration was held in honor of his 105th birthday anniversary.
But while Kim Il-Sung’s legacy is secure, Kim Jong-un’s is less so as his provocations isolate the country from even its erstwhile allies. His national hero grandfather could at least claim to have been involved in an armed struggle for independence against the colonial Japanese, even if the official version of his life is mostly myth.
Kim Il-sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong-il, was born in February 1942 in the Russian Far East village and did not reside in Korea until 1946 at the earliest. North Korean propagandists have nonetheless asserted he was born in a guerrilla camp on the slopes of Paektu mountain in the Korean peninsula’s north, where his first toys were allegedly guns and bandoliers.
That origin myth could be perpetuated with some imaginative finesse, but it has been much harder to claim that the third generation of Kim’s, including current leader Kim Jong-un, has any heroic military experience whatsoever.
State mouthpiece media has unconvincingly asserted that Kim Jong-un personally directed the artillery during skirmishes with South Korea after he became “supreme leader” following the death of his father in December 2011.
He has since closely emulated his grandfather by always smiling for official pictures and imitating his shaved-side hairstyle. But, at the tender age of 33 and lacking any true combat experience, it is not far-fetched to speculate that Kim Jong-un does not command the same loyalty and respect among senior military leaders as his father and grandfather did.
While reports of internal purges and an alleged 2013 assassination attempt against Kim Jong-un have come mostly from South Korean intelligence sources, indications of internal discord cannot be discarded entirely as anti-Pyongyang propaganda.
What is known for certain is that Kim Jong-un had Jang Song-taek, the husband of his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, executed in 2013. Jang, then a government policy advisor, apparently made the fatal mistake of prioritizing economic development over an official military-first policy, which Kim Jong-un inherited from his father Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-un’s main – many would argue only – claim to legitimacy is that he hails from the ruling Kim dynasty. That’s an increasingly expansive claim, however. His father was known to have at least seven children with four different wives and mistresses.
His first wife, Hong Il-chun, bore him only a daughter, so he took a mistress, Song Hye-rim, an actress at the Korean Film Art Studio in Pyongyang. She became the mother of Kim Jong-nam, born in 1971 and assassinated by nerve agent in a suspected official North Korean hit at Kuala Lumpur’s airport in February this year.
Kim Jong-nam was known to be immensely loyal to his father and was later made head of the Korean Computer Center in Pyongyang. But he fell from family favor in May 2001, when he was caught at Tokyo’s Narita airport traveling on a passport he held from the Dominican Republic.
He had reportedly arrived with a group of North Korean children to visit Tokyo Disneyland but was expelled before taking any joyrides.
After that debacle, he went into self-imposed exile with his wife and children in Macau, allegedly under China’s protection. He even gave occasional interviews to foreign media where he expressed critical views of the Pyongyang regime.
However, little is known about Kim Jong-il’s third consort, Kim Hong-suk. She reportedly gave birth to two daughters whose current whereabouts are unknown. Kim Jong-il’s fourth female partner, Ko Yong-hui, was a performer of the Mansudae Dance Troupe and is the mother of Kim Jong-un, his elder brother Kim Jong-chul and younger sister Kim Yo-jong.
While Kim Yo-jong, head of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, is a known trusted adviser to Kim Jong-un, the elder brother Kim Jong-chul lives abroad. He has attracted international publicity as an ardent fan of rock and roll start Eric Clapton and has been spotted at the celebrated guitarist’s concerts in various international cities.
Kim Jong-chul’s role in the present regime is a matter of conjecture, but it is widely believed that he played a role in the arrest and execution of Jang Song-taek.
Several of Kim Jong-il’s children, including Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un Kim Jong-chul and Kim Yo-jong, were educated at prestigious private schools in Switzerland. That led many to hope and believe they would have a broader, perhaps even more liberal, outlook than their parents and grandparents.
But Kim Jong-un’s time in power shows that internal leadership struggles and Byzantine politics, not Western influence, will determine North Korea’s political future. Despite his bloodline and mythological heroism, it is unclear whether he will continue to enjoy the military support he needs to sustain the family dynasty.
Bertil Lintner has reported on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction for Jane’s Defense, the Far Eastern Economic Review and Wall Street Journal, and is the author of Dear Leader, Great Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan