How North Korea Works

The Kim Dynasty
Soldiers walk in front of giant portraits of Kim Il Sung (L) and Kim Jung Il on Kim Il Sung square, Pyongyang, North Korea. Cappronnier Benoit/Getty Images

Though North Korea isn't a monarchy, it might as well be one. Since the nation's beginning, it has been ruled by members of its founder Kim Il Sung's family. When the Eternal President died from a heart attack in July 1994, his eldest son by the first of his two wives, Kim Jong Il ascended to power. Kim Il Sung reportedly selected him because he seemed more ruthless than his other five siblings and had shown his skills as a propagandist [sources: Quince, Ryall].

Kim Jong Il inherited a North Korea that was in desperate straits. The Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union no longer existed to provide economic support. North Korea suddenly had to start paying for oil and other needed imports, as opposed to exchanging credit. That caused its economy to collapse. A brutal famine ensued, which was made worse by floods and droughts, and 2.5 million people reportedly died of starvation [sources: Quince, Phillips].

In response, Kim Jong Il tried to institute some economic reforms. In 2002, for example, the regime began allowing semi-private markets for goods. But that did little to improve North Koreans' overall standard of living [source: CIA Factbook].

When Kim Jong Il, like his father, died of a heart attack in 2011, his third son, Kim Jong Un, rose to power. (He was picked over the first-born son, Kim Jong Nam, who had fallen into disfavor after he tried to use a fake passport to get into Japan, and the second son, Kim Jong Chul, who wasn't hard-nosed enough.) Kim Jong Un, who claimed his father's title of "Dear Leader," had been educated in Switzerland, and reportedly is a fan of Western pop music and basketball [sources: Quince, Ryall, Taylor].

Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un quickly showed that he could be as brutal as his father and grandfather. In his first five years of rule, he strengthened his hold on power by reportedly ordering the execution of 140 senior members of the country's military, government and party elite. The latter included his own uncle and the country's defense minister, Hyon Yong Choi, who was ripped to pieces by fire from an antiaircraft gun in front of his family and others [source: Kwon and Westcott]. In February 2017, his elder sibling Kim Jong Nam was killed in a Malaysian airport by assassins, whom police say sprayed him with VX, a chemical weapon nerve agent [source: Berlinger].