Kim Pyong Il is the last surviving son of North Korean founder and President Kim Il Sung and half brother of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Despite coming from such a powerful background, Kim Pyong Il spent most of his adult life, and political career posted abroad, away from the Pyongyang power circles only just very recently returning to his home country after wrapping up a long career as a diplomat.
Once considered a potential successor to Kim Il Sung, Kim Pyong Il enjoyed an upbringing similar to his half-brother Kim Jong Il attending the best schools in the country, travelling abroad and even learning how to fly small civilian aircraft in east Germany.
Since Kim Pyong Il headed abroad, he has lived a quiet life as a North Korean diplomat, but in early 2020 his name floated around as a potential successor to Kim Jong Un.
Early Life Education and Career Beginnings in Pyongyang
Kim Pyong Il was born in Pyongyang on August 10th, 1954, as the son of President Kim Il Sung and his second wife, Kim Song Ae.
Kim Pyong Il had one younger brother Kim Yong-Il and his two much more well-known half-siblings from Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk.
He bears the same name as one of Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Suks children who drowned in Pyongyang in 1947.
His older half brother, Kim Jong Il, the future leader of North Korea and his rival in a power struggle in Pyongyang in the early 1970s and his older half-sister, was Kim Kyong Hui. Kim Kyong Hui would famously marry Jang Sung Thaek, who in 2013 became the most senior member of the Worker’s Party of Korea to be expelled from his position, accused of being a counter-revolutionary and subsequently executed.
Kim Pyong Il attended Namsan Senior High School during his teens a school in Pyongyang geared towards the children of North Korean society’s highest members.
He studied and became fluent in English abroad while studying in Malta and also learned how to fly light aircraft in former East Germany.
Kim Pyong Il was enrolled in Kim Il Sung University in 1973 and majored in political economy.
He also attended the Kim Il Sung Military and was commissioned by the KPA as a Major General after completing his higher education.
From 1976 – 1979, Kim Pyong Il served as in the military as a commander of one of the elite Kim families bodyguard units.
The Sibling Rivalry for Succession
Throughout the 1970s, an intense power struggle gripped the Pyongyang political elite to become Kim Il Sung’s successor.
While Kim Jong Il was strongly gaining credentials in his father’s eye to be the next leader of the country through his advancement of the countries propaganda and arts division, Kim Pyong Il’s mother had other plans.
It is reported that Kim Song Sae, Kim Il Sung’s second wife and Kim Pyong Il’s mother, made moves amongst the elite of the country to position her son as heir to the North Korean thrown as opposed to Kim Jong Il. Backing her up was Kim Jong Ju, who was an important North Korean political figure at the time and could be described at countries number four.
Supposedly Kim Jong Ju took a personal liking to Pyong Il, who was his grandfather’s spitting image in his youth.
Ultimately, however, Kim Pyong Il could not rally the support or win the support of his father to be next in line for succession, and as the 1970s came to an end, it was clear Kim Jong Il was unofficially the successor and his official designation would come before not too long.
A Life in Semi-Political Exile Abroad
After falling out of favour to succeed his father and Kim Jong Il officially named as the successor, Kim Pyong Il was sent abroad to begin his career as a diplomat where he would no longer influence the factions and ruling Pyongyang elite.
Kim Song Ae was stripped of her titles and duties after Kim Jong Il was officially named successor and spent the next decade of her life living quietly in the North Korean capital.
The first posting for Kim Pyong Il would be as a Military Attache at the DPRK Embassy to Yugoslavia. Kim would hold this position for nearly ten years.
In 1988 Kim received a promotion and made his way to the Peoples Republic of Hungary to serve as the DPRK ambassador. However, this posting would be short-lived as Kim was transferred just a year later to Bulgaria as a protest about Hungary opening diplomatic relations with South Korea.
After a five year stint in Bulgaria, Kim Pyong Il was on the move again, this time heading to Finland, a post he would hold until the DPRK shuttered its embassy in the country to save costs in 1998.
While on post in Finland, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung passed away, and Kim Jong Il took over. Interestingly a photographer snapped a picture of Kim Pyong Il’s office at the time which only had a portrait of his father Kim Il Sung hanging even though new portraits of Kim Jong Il to be placed alongside Kim Il Sung had been distributed to North Koreans abroad months earlier.
The Second Half of a Career Abroad, Poland and the Czech Republic.
The next stop for Kim Pyong Il on his diplomatic posting tour of Europe would be Poland. Poland would also be his longest-tenured posting abroad.
Pictured Above: Kim Pyong Il and his children in Poland
Initially, upon arriving in Poland, his status seemed to be in limbo as it took him over nine months to present his credentials officially to the Polish prime minister.
After repeated requests for his credentials to be presented, he did so, and they were signed in the name of his father, Kim Il Sung, who at the time had been dead for four years.
In 2000 Kim Pyong Il was admitted to a hospital in Warsaw for heart problems, something that both his half brother and father suffered from during their lives.
Kim Pyong Il’s two childrens both received higher education in Warsaw.
Beginning in 2015, Kim Pyong Il started his final posting as DPRK ambassador and headed to Prague, Czech Republic, with his family to serve for the next four years.
In November 2019, after almost 40 years abroad, Kim Pyong Il headed home to Pyongyang after giving up his position as DPRK ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Is Kim Pyong Il a Successor Candidate in North Korea?
In April 2020, when a series of rumours emerged that current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was incapacitated or dead, the world quickly began asking the question who would succeed Kim Jong Un if he unexpectedly passed away with no clear line of succession in place.
We know Kim Jong Un has at least one daughter named Kim-Ju Ae, as confirmed by Dennis Rodman, after meeting her during a visit to North Korea. Kim Jong Un likely has more children; however, because of his age, all of them are still young children or in their very early teens as a maximum.
Eyes then turned to Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, a military faction, senior members of the worker’s party, and Kim Pyong Il.
In the event of Kim Jong Un’s early demise, however, it is unlikely that Kim Pyong Il would succeed as North Korean leader for a few reasons.
While Kim Pyong Il is certainly connected to some of North Koreans’ political elite through his family and operations abroad at North Korean missions, he likely lacks the domestic support needed in Pyongyang to secure succession.
There are members of the Kim family such as his sister Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Chul, who likely have more control over the Kim family assets and connections to the country’s military and other power players.
The main thing Kim Pyong Il has going for him is his Baekdu bloodline (descending from Noth Korean Leader Kim Il Sung); however, this alone would likely not be enough to make Kim Pyong Il first in line on the succession tree.
Since returning to Pyongyang, Kim Pyong Il has been in a state of radio silence, not issuing any statements or being mentioned at all by North Korean state media, this likely points out that his career in politics may be over.
Of course, Kim Pyong Il’s retirement from politics is pure speculation, and as North Korea watchers know, the country likes to surprise us all the time with the reappearance of political figures believed to be long gone.
Unlike his nephew Kim Jong Nam, Kim Pyong Il showed a remarkable complacency over his 40 years abroad while the North Korean regime has gone through multiple leadership changes.
Sources in diplomatic communities who have spent time with Kim Pyong Il have described him as intelligent, well-read, and well-versed on world issues.
His attitude has likely contributed to his mostly uneventful tenure as a North Korean diplomat as he has been able to lead a comfortable life without being seen as a potential threat to any power bases back in Pyongyang.
When his nephew Kim Jong Nam was assassinated, the world turned to see if Kim Pyong Il could be the next member of the Kim family abroad to be targeted, but these concerns never came to fruition, and Pyong Il continued his duties as ambassador.
It remains likely that Kim Pyong Il will mostly stay out of the political limelight for the rest of his career, especially now that he is back in a country he has not lived full time in since the late 1970s.