I know little about North Korean history, but their official narrative and what I had also believed is that - long story short - Kim Jong-Il basically just inherited his dictatorial powers from his father, as per his father's wishes.

There does not seem to be anything on the Wikipedia page of either Kim Jong-Il or Kim Il-Sung that contradicts this "long story short" version of North Korean history.

Yet, I was surprised to read in Jang Jin-Sung's Dear Leader (2014) that there was in fact a vicious power struggle.

So my questions are:

(1) Is Jang correct? (2) If he is correct, was this already common knowledge amongst students of North Korean history, and just unfamiliar to the broader public? Or are these new and surprising revelations?

Some excerpts:

Although we reached our conclusion reluctantly, the overwhelming evidence that demonstrated the enmity and power struggles between the son and the father (including documents showing how father and son had announced directly opposing policies at the same time) left us with no alternative. We had to concede that, while Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy might have been based on hereditary succession from father to son in terms of the official narrative, in reality it had involved usurpation by the son of the father. Kim Jong-il had consolidated power by wresting it away from his father instead of receiving it from him.


Kim Il-sung’s associates began to disappear one by one, and those who remained grew increasingly disgruntled by the fact that their children were being relegated to provincial postings, dead-end government positions or military ranks outside the power structure of the Party. The disaffected supporters of Kim Il-sung confronted the issue by going as a group to the Mount Keumsu assembly hall (also known as the Palace of the Supreme Leader) on 15 April 1982, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, to discuss the issue with the Supreme Leader himself.

By this time, however, Kim Il-sung was merely a figurehead. All power in the state had been meticulously routed to Kim Jong-il through the OGD’s tentacled reach, with positions of real authority occupied by Kim Jong-il’s classmates from Kim Il-sung University. Kim Jong-il’s power over the Supreme Leader himself was absolute: Kim Il-sung had to request permission from the Party’s OGD before he could meet up with any of his supporters or old comrades. His own powers were restricted to those that would continue to make him appear powerful to North Koreans and outsiders alike, such as on-site inspections and diplomatic authority. Even Section 1 of the Guards Command, the personal bodyguards of Kim Il-sung, now answered directly to the Party’s OGD. In this way, a leader who had once received close protection from a loyal cohort of guards lived out his last days under the close surveillance of a cohort loyal to Kim Jong-il.


Kim Jong-il refused to fulfil even one of his father’s simplest last requests. Kim Il-sung had said that when he died, he wanted to be buried alongside his fallen comrades at the Mount Daesung Revolutionary Martyrs’ Memorial. After his death, his ex-guerrilla comrades even signed a group petition for this wish to be carried out. But Kim Jong-il thought that if Kim Il-sung’s body were laid to rest at this location, the authority of his father’s revolutionary comrades would be seen to be reasserted, which might in turn threaten his own power because he had once taken away theirs.

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    Very interesting question. I couldn't find any academic reviews of this book, so I don't know if its thesis is widely accepted. Does the author cite anybody for these claims? Even if they were available, I'm not sure they'd do any good. I once read somewhere anyone who calls himself an 'expert' on North Korea is either an idiot or a liar. Historians often view the accounts of defectors as suspect because the defector wants to curry favour with their new patron. However, there're no alternative sources because NK is such a secretive country. Sorry. It's either take him at his word, or don't.
    – Ne Mo
    Jan 25, 2015 at 13:49
  • What I know is Kim Jong ill castrated his younger brother in law during the power struggle. But considering even still now many war time generals are liviing at the age of Kim Jong un, it is hard for me to think such. Although there are few sources so nobody probably knows what really happened.........
    – user12387
    May 25, 2015 at 21:16
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    Not sure if this wouldn't be better on Politics. I do know that getting info out of N. Korea is a challenge, and had heard that a lot of their seemingly "crazy" behavior had to do with internal power struggles, and particularly keeping the Army in line. That fact that this would even be a consideration tells you that this isn't a simple situation of a hereditary dictatorship, as it is often portrayed.
    – T.E.D.
    May 28, 2015 at 8:58
  • I don't think that is true. If there is power struggle between the Kim family, there would be great, at least some change of the most important department, such as National Defence Commission or Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But i cant see great change in terms of structure and members between late 1980s and 3-4 years after Kim Il-Sung death.
    – Him
    May 30, 2015 at 0:04
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    Anything written in the South about the North is suspect. Doubly so when apparently written by a defector. Same could be said about the reverse situation, but we don't bother to read NK propaganda. Oct 31, 2015 at 20:43

1 Answer 1


Jang Jin-Sung appears to be the first author to describe a coercive transition from Kim Il-Sung to Kim Jong-Il. Rather than being common knowledge, his claim is a newly well-known story told by a single source.

Whether he is a credible source is harder to assess. 38north.org has not written about him. Mr. Jang was also responsible for some other sensational, unsubstantiated claims previously reported by VICE. Whatever his goals are, he leverages dramatic storytelling in Western media as a means of generating publicity and book sales.

The Washington Post wrote about his transition claim that "documentary proof is likely to be unavailable until the Kim dynasty collapses". The opaque nature of the North Korean state prevents independent verification, so his claim cannot yet be proved nor disproved: additional information would be news.

  • It is likely than the power struggle was not limited to the inheritance of power. This is bloody regime, you have to keep your friends close and your ennemies closer.
    – xrorox
    Feb 2, 2018 at 8:42