Kim Pyong-il: Former Ambassador or Future Supreme Leader of North Korea?

Kim Pyong-il: Former Ambassador or Future Supreme Leader of North Korea?

False rumors announcing Kim Jong-un’s death created a whirlwind of speculation as to who would succeed him. While Kim Pyong-il initially appears to be a prime candidate for succession, his political history and current circumstances divulge a different story.


The Rise of Kim Jong-un:

Because Kim Pyong-il was once a strong contender for his father’s succession due to his physical similarity to Kim Il-sung, his military expertise, and his intelligence, it makes sense that he would be considered a potential threat to a newly-appointed successor like Kim Jong-un. Following the death of Kim Jong-il, Pyong-il was allegedly put under house arrest after he arrived in Pyongyang to visit his ailing mother. Just a few years after Kim Jong-il ascended to power, Pyong-il was moved to a new post in Europe for the first time in nearly twenty years. Since the move, Kim Pyong-il has avoided contact with non-embassy personnel even more fervently than during his stay in Poland; he travelled between his residence and embassy compounds by car and did not interact with Czech media throughout the duration of his stay in the country.


In 2017, following the death of Kim Jong-nam, some reports stated that Kim Pyong-il could face a similar fate and that his life had been threatened—though representatives of Czechia stated that they were not aware of any threats and did not take additional security measures to protect the North Korean embassy. Rumors about the safety of Kim Pyong-il started to emerge following a report published in Dong-A Ilbo that stated Pyong-il could potentially lead North Korea “in exile.” Notably, Pyong-il’s behavior in Czechia appeared to be even more private than his life in Warsaw. It is also around this time that a North Korean agent was reportedly sent to Czechia to keep an eye on Kim Pyong-il’s activities, though claims of in-house surveillance by North Korean security agents are nothing new to coverage of Pyong-il.

An Unlikely Successor:

Though at one point Kim Pyong-il was a viable successor to Kim Il-sung, his forty year absence from Pyongyang’s political sphere will make it difficult to attain the support necessary to take Kim Jong-un’s place. Many of the military connections that he once held were upended by Kim Jong-il, and current high-ranking North Korean officials are either loyal remnants from the Kim Jong-il era, or newly-appointed members of Kim Jong-un’s council. Some of those who fought for his ascension to Supreme Leader, including his mother and Kim Jong-ju, have already passed away. Kim Pyong-il clearly has ties to some of the inner workings of the Kim family, including likely overseeing money-making projects in the countries he was stationed in. However, there are other members of the Kim family—including Kim Yo-jong—who have more direct oversight of family funds. As a result, Kim Pyong-il is left with little more than his Baektu lineage to assert his claim to Supreme Leader. If speculation that Kim Yo-jong cannot become the next leader of North Korea because of her gender proves to be true, it appears to be more likely that a current high-ranking member of the WPK with strong ties to the military would take Kim Jong-un’s place—at least temporarily.

Those who knew Kim Pyong-il describe him as intelligent and incredibly well-read, though they doubted that there was much else for him to do within the confines of the North Korean embassy compounds. There is good reason that he has often stayed out of the spotlight, especially after such an extended period abroad. Over the last forty years, Kim Pyong-il has established a pattern of complacency with both the past and current North Korean regime. This pattern is unlikely to change if he wishes to ensure his survival, especially now that he’s no longer serving overseas but resides in North Korea again.

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

John Grover (@JohnDaleGrover) is a Korean Studies Fellow at the Center.

Adriana Nazarko recently served as a Korean Studies Summer Research Assistant in 2019 (a special note of thanks for her many hours of additional research on this project).

Image: PHOTO TAKEN 28AUG05 - A visitor shoots video of a sculpture of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang August 28, 2005.