Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in North Korea Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Kim Jong Il became North Korea’s president following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. This dynastic succession was unprecedented in a communist country and came at a time of domestic and international crisis for the isolated nation. The aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse tested North Korea’s stability and Kim Jong Il’s authority. Conditions inside North Korea worsened while its leadership faced the world with a mixture of diplomacy and defiance.

Summary of Event

Known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea experienced its first and so far only leadership change when Kim Jong Il replaced his father, Kim Il Sung, as the communist nation’s president in 1994. Although Kim Jong Il had been identified within North Korea as his father’s successor as early as 1980, there was uncertainty about his character and qualifications. Kim Jong Il faced the difficult tasks of living up to the mythical legacy of his father, of preserving North Korea’s communist regime after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and of dealing with longtime enemies Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Despite severe poverty and famine inside North Korea and an increasingly adversarial relationship with the United States, Kim Jong Il exercises absolute control over his nation more than a decade after Kim Il Sung’s death. North Korea, government [kw]Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in North Korea (July 8, 1994) [kw]North Korea, Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in (July 8, 1994) [kw]Korea, Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in North (July 8, 1994) North Korea, government [g]East Asia;July 8, 1994: Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in North Korea[08920] [g]Koreas;July 8, 1994: Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in North Korea[08920] [c]Government and politics;July 8, 1994: Kim Jong Il Succeeds His Father in North Korea[08920] Kim Jong Il Kim Il Sung Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;postpresidency diplomacy Clinton, Bill Kim Dae Jung

The death of Kim Il Sung on July 8, 1994, raised doubts about the survival of North Korea, the nation he had dominated since its founding in 1948. Revered as “supreme leader,” Kim Il Sung relied on a cult of personality similar to those of the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong to establish and maintain authoritarian rule. The seeds of Kim Il Sung’s self-presentation were sowed prior to World War II when he led guerrilla insurgencies against Japan’s brutal colonial occupation and developed ties with the Soviet Union. Contrary to his official biography, Kim Jong Il was born in the Soviet Union during one of his father’s sojourns in that nation, not in Korea. The post-World War II division of the Korean peninsula prompted Kim Il Sung to invade its southern half in a reunification bid, triggering the 1950-1953 Korean War as the first major Cold War confrontation. The war ended in a stalemate that left the Koreas divided and Kim Il Sung determined to preserve his notion of Korean sovereignty through totalitarianism.

Whether or not his image as the embodiment of Korean independence and nationalism combined with elements of Marxism and Leninism was authentic, the power that Kim Il Sung maintained for more than four decades was unquestionably real and total.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il waves to P’yŏngyang residents at the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, 1995.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Kim Il Sung’s death would have been difficult for North Koreans at any point in their history but was especially problematic in the mid-1990’s given the nation’s domestic and international circumstances. The consequences of the end of Soviet and Eastern European communism put economic and political pressure on North Korea, with reunification of East and West Germany representing a dangerous precedent for the communist regime. Regarding North Korea’s relations with the United States, which have been punctuated by crises since the latter’s founding in 1948, the aftermath of the Cold War put more rather than less pressure on Kim Il Sung. His nation’s nuclear program was the flash point. In 1992, North Korea prevented inspections mandated by an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The following year brought a report by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States charging North Korea with possession of one or more nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons;North Korea Weapons;nuclear Concerns arose over whether those weapons threatened Japan, South Korea, or even the United States, which came close to military intervention on the Korean peninsula in late 1993 and early 1994.

At this critical point, Kim Il Sung startled the world with pragmatic actions aimed at decreasing tensions. He made diplomatic moves and welcomed emissaries from the United States, most notably the former president Jimmy Carter. The June, 1994, meeting of Carter and Kim Il Sung in North Korea was a controversial and promising event that made Bill Clinton’s presidential administration hopeful yet apprehensive. The talks led to the Agreed Framework, Agreed Framework of 1994 U.S.-North Korea Pact (1994)[U.S. North Korea Pact] an initiative designed to ease economic sanctions imposed on North Korea, encourage further diplomacy, and curtail North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for oil. Formal talks on the Agreed Framework were set to start July 8, 1994, but Kim Il Sung’s sudden death put rapprochement between North Korea and the United States on hold and focused attention on Kim Jong Il, who decreed a long period of national mourning.

North Korea’s internal problems and its precarious global position were daunting challenges facing Kim Jong Il during the power transition from his father. Deprived of Soviet subsidies, the nation’s economy was deteriorating and would suffer a 25 to 40 percent gross national product decrease during the 1994-2000 period. Famine broke out in the mid-1990’s, persisted throughout the decade, and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps one million North Koreans. Reinforcement and adaptation of his father’s personality cult permitted Kim Jong Il to gain control over North Korean military and political institutions he needed to survive these and many more problems, including defections of high government officials. Continuity with Kim Il Sung’s juche (self-reliance) ideology, which drew from Marxist-Leninist theory on one hand and Korean-Confucian traditions on the other, was imperative for Kim Jong Il.

During the latter half of the 1990’s, Kim Jong Il displayed some of his father’s talent for deal-making and diplomacy aimed at crisis management, even if these initiatives bolstered his own power more than the welfare of North Koreans. Starting in 1995, North Korea joined the United Nations World Food Program, which helped it deal with catastrophic famines, floods, and unfavorable agricultural conditions. Surging numbers of North Korean refugees in 1996 and 1997 brought more aid from China. However, the long history of hostility between North Korea and Japan showed no signs of improving, as shown by Japan’s concerns over North Korea’s weapons development and the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. Finally, military action by the United States remained a possibility, not only because of North Korea’s nuclear program but also in the event of instability on the Korean peninsula should conditions inside North Korea spill over the borders.

Surprisingly, the dawn of the twenty-first century found Kim Jong Il and his South Korean counterparts making diplomatic progress despite the dire state of North Korea and the volatility of its relations with the United States. South Korea’s president Kim Dae Jung took a risk with his “sunshine policy,” seeking a degree of partnership with the North. Kim Dae Jung’s 2000 meeting with Kim Jong Il in P’yŏngyang was dramatic, but some South Koreans questioned its substance. There were negative consequences for Kim Dae Jung when Kim Jong Il failed to visit Seoul. Positive results of the sunshine policy addressed several areas affected by the Korean War, such as reunification of Korean families, trade and transportation between the North and South, and the need to defuse military antagonisms between the Koreas. Without overstating the success of these overtures in the still-divided Korean peninsula, North Korea’s subsequent moves to establish relationships with several European countries were notable. Moreover, North Korea’s rulers took tentative steps away from their failed centrally planned economy and implemented modest local reforms to alleviate privation.

Of course, none of these developments change the totalitarian nature of Kim Jong Il’s power, which continues to have negative consequences for the majority of North Koreans and which U.S. president George W. Bush used as justification for his 2002 inclusion of North Korea in the so-called axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq.


Despite the common description of North Korea as the world’s last Stalinist state, the inheritance by Kim Jong Il of his father’s absolute power shows that leadership in North Korea involves more than adherence to communism. Understanding this nation and its ruler are difficult given North Korea’s secrecy and the prevalence of depictions (especially in the United States) of Kim Jong Il as a cipher, lunatic, and terrorist. Without excusing any aspect of Kim Jong Il’s despotism and its effects on people inside and outside North Korea, the role of cultural, historical, and familial factors in his survival and that of his country must be addressed. A more complex approach to analyzing the persistence of the Kim Jong Il regime in a world where he and North Korea have long been expected to go the way of previous communist leaders and countries is necessary to comprehend, and perhaps to solve, the national, regional, and global problems that Kim Jong Il poses for the twenty-first century. North Korea, government

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Charles K. The Koreas. New York: Routledge, 2007. Situates North and South Korea in a contemporary context of globalization and addresses complexities of Korean national and individual identities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cumings, Bruce. North Korea: Another Country. New York: New Press, 2004. Drawing from his personal experience as a traveler in North Korea, the author offers a provocative portrait of the enigmatic nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">French, Paul. North Korea, the Paranoid Peninsula: A Modern History. London: Zed Books, 2005. Seeks to provide a nuanced history while critiquing North Korea’s economic and political rigidity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Suh, Dae-Sook, and Chae-Jin Lee, eds. North Korea After Kim il-Sung. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998. Anthology of scholarly essays dealing with the transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il and its immediate and future impact on North Korea.

U.S.-North Korea Pact

Famine Strikes North Korea

Categories: History