On a May evening in 1941, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk made love in a tent in the Soviet Far East. Newlyweds, they gave themselves to each other, unaware of what the future would bring—their intimacy a result of their mutual struggle against the Japanese. The two revolutionaries shared a rare marital bond: they had fought side-by-side at moments when death seemed certain.
This battle-hardened intimacy led to the birth of Kim Jong Il on February 16, 1942. Somewhere near dawn, the cries of that newborn baby pierced the cold morning air of a guerilla camp near the Soviet border with Manchuria.
“How glad my father and mother would have been if they had been alive!” Kim Il Sung thought at his son’s birth. The revolutionary fighter warmly recalled his own grandparents’ affection, but lamented that his son would never know his. “Kim Jong Il did not enjoy such love,” the North Korean leader reflected before his death.
Instead, the future Sŏn’gun leader grew up surrounded by soldiers and the familiar refrain of target practice. Only a little over a month after his birth, Kim Jong Suk left him in the care of a Soviet-run nursery to return to her military obligations. There, Jong Il spent much of his first three years surrounded by portraits of Stalin and teachers lecturing on Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.
In the guerilla camp, Jong Il went by a Russian name, Yura. Short of children’s toys, he played with a wooden rifle and ammunition belts. The little boy even asked Kim Jong Suk for a real gun after a guerilla playfully informed him that his wooden one would never do. If Kim Jong Il wanted a gun, his mother told him, he had to use his toy to seize one from the Japanese.
“I owe everything to my mother,” Kim Jong Il later recalled with admiration.
After forces from the Soviet Union and United States liberated the Korean peninsula, Kim Jong Il entered the land of his ancestors for the first time in November 1945. Kim Il Sung brought his family to meet his grandparents in Mangyongdae soon after. In that humble home, Jong Il’s great-grandfather, Kim Bo-hyon, held the nearly four year old boy with satisfaction and downed a glass of liquor.
Kim Jong Il’s family was growing at this point. In 1944, his mother had given birth to a little brother, Kim Man-il (nicknamed Shura), and then a little sister, Kim Kyong-hui, in 1946. The Kims lived in a Western-style stone house in Pyongyang, luxurious by the standards of the time—though Kim Jong Suk refused to wear shoes in the yard and insisted on slaughtering her own chickens. Kim Jong Il spent those days dressing up in military uniforms, marching around the yard with his brother.
The golden years were short-lived.
In the summer of 1947, Shura, just three years old, drowned in the family’s courtyard pond. The young boy fell into the water while playing with his older brother. By the time Kim Il Sung reached the scene, it was too late to do anything. The leader of North Korea hysterically demanded answers, but Kim Jong Il, a shocked little boy, could say nothing.
Two years later, Kim Jong Il’s mother said goodbye to her son for the last time. Leaving for the hospital to give birth to a new baby on September 22, 1949, she promised to return quickly. A stillborn baby girl emerged from Kim Jong Suk’s womb, and she died not long after. The little boy spent that day unaware of his mother’s death, staring out the window excitedly. When a car pulled up, he rushed outside, bewildered to see a family member rush into the house, grab clothes for his mother, and then leave abruptly. His confusion turned into pain by the next morning. Attending his mother’s funeral, Jong Il hugged her dead body, bawling. When female soldiers tried to pull him away, Kim Il Sung responded: “Leave him alone. Tomorrow he will have no mother any more in whose embrace to cry.”
Less than a year later, war swept over the Korean peninsula. Near the anniversary of his mother’s death, Kim Jong Il watched bombs fall on Pyongyang from a hill outside his house. After allegedly seeing a U.S. pilot parachute from a crashing plane, Jong Il joined a mob of school children and rushed to the site. There—as the pilot was taken prisoner—he reportedly said: “Look at that fellow, how frightened he is…We should beat the wolves mercilessly with a stick.”
The future North Korean leader fled Pyongyang for the safety of Manchuria shortly after. In the town of Jilin—where his father had gone to school as a teenager—the boy resumed his kindergarten education.
Three years later, Kim Jong Il returned to the ruins of Pyongyang, a product of the cataclysm of war and bitter loss that defined his childhood.