Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un ‘turns 40’ but without any public celebrations

Exact year of his birth remains uncertain with conflicting information indicating it might either be 1982 or 1983

Maroosha Muzaffar
Tuesday 09 January 2024 11:50 GMT
South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung stabbed in neck as he speaks to reporters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have turned 40 on 8 January but there was no official acknowledgement of his birthday.

His birthday has never been publicly acknowledged, unlike those of his late father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung, which are celebrated as two major holidays in the country.

While the United States government lists Mr Kim’s birth year as 1984, making him 40 in 2024, North Korea has never confirmed the exact date. The closest confirmation came in 2020 when Kim Kye-gwan, a senior aide to Mr Kim, confirmed that the then-US president, Donald Trump, had sent a personal letter to the North Korean leader for his birthday​.

In 2014, following an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, Dennis Rodman performed a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for the soon-to-be 30-year-old leader. While audiences beyond the hermit kingdom could view the video, domestic viewers were informed that the former NBA player had simply presented a “special song.

On Monday, North Korean state media showed Mr Kim visiting a chicken farm with his daughter, Kim Ju-ae, who South Korea’s intelligence agency suggests may be a likely successor.

But there was no mention of him in state media celebrating his birthday.

According to Korea Times, the exact year of Mr Kim’s birth remains somewhat uncertain, with conflicting information suggesting it could be 1982 or 1983, in contrast to the widely accepted 1984.

The South Korea Ministry of Unification’s website, for instance, supports the commonly known date of 8 January 1984.

The lack of definitive information and discrepancies in reported birth years contribute to the mystery surrounding the North Korean leader’s personal details – a characteristic common in North Korean leadership, where details about the ruling family are often kept confidential and subject to speculation.

In this photo provided on Monday, 8 January 2024, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, with his daughter visits a newly-built chicken farm in Hwangju County of North Hwanghae Province on 7 January 2024 (KCNA via KNS)

Some North Korea observers say that Mr Kim is probably too young to warrant big birthday celebrations. It is, however, possible that the North Korean leader’s birthday could become an official celebration sometime in the future.

Kim Il-sung’s birthday was designated as a national holiday in 1968 when he turned 56, and Kim Jong-il similarly established his birthday as an official holiday in 1982 when he turned 40.

Some speculate that the absence of a public celebration for Mr Kim’s birthday might be connected to concerns about drawing attention to his late Japan-born mother, Ko Yong-hui. She was a dancer and was the third or fourth wife of Kim Jong-il.

Ko’s ties with Japan, which had colonised the Korean Peninsula in the past, and the fact that she wasn’t Kim Jong-il’s first wife might be viewed as potentially disadvantageous for Mr Kim’s dynastic rule.

“The fact his mother came from Japan is his biggest weak point that undermines his legitimacy of the Paektu bloodline,” Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University told the Associated Press. Paektu refers to the Kim family’s lineage named after the country’s most sacred mountain.

In this photo provided on Monday, 8 January 2024, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, with his daughter visits a newly-built poultry factory in Hwangju County of North Hwanghae Province on 7 January 2024 (KCNA via KNS)

“When Kim Jong-un’s birthday becomes an official holiday, he won’t still publicise details about his birth,” he said.

In North Korea, the caste classification system – popularly known as “chulsin songbun” – is based on family background. Mr Kim’s mother was reportedly categorised as “hostile”, the lowest social status, due to her Japanese birth.

“Once his birthday is designated as a national holiday, it would inevitably bring attention to his mother, which I think one of the biggest political weak points for Kim Jong-un,” Yee Ji-sun, an expert on North Korea’s society and culture at the Korea Institute for National Unification was quoted as saying by the Korea Times.

“When Kim Jong-un tries to highlight the legitimacy of his power, he tends to emphasise his connection to his grandfather more than his father. That’s probably because of the same reason.”

The commemoration of the elder Kims’ birthdays in North Korea entails compulsory viewing of state broadcasts lauding the leaders. On Christmas Eve, marking the birthday of Kim Jong-suk, the deceased grandmother of Mr Kim, people embark on pilgrimages to Hoeryong, a town in the north-east and her birthplace.

In 2012, it was reported that North Korean authorities punished people who did not display genuine sorrow and despair following the death of Kim Jong-il on 17 December that year. It was claimed in a report in Daily NK that “authorities are imposing a minimum of six months in a labour-training camp for anyone who failed to take part in the organised mourning events or, for those who participated, did not shed tears and appeared insincere”.

In a separate incident, North Korea fired 200 rounds of artillery into waters near its disputed western sea border with South Korea last week, prompting the South’s military to advise residents on nearby islands to take shelter.

Additional reporting with agencies

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in