For most of its existence, North Korea has not specified a formal head of state. The 1948 constitution did not define a head of state, but with regard to political functions usually performed by the head of state, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) could be considered one. Kim Il Sung was, at the time, as Premier, merely the head of government but not of state. As his position grew more stable, he wanted to be recognized as the head of state instead. Foreign admirers first started calling him such, and in the 1972 constitution his position was formalized as the President of the republic.
After Kim Il Sung died in 1994, the presidency and hence the position of head of state was left vacant. While the late leader was titled the Eternal President of North Korea, the actual office of the President was written out of the constitution in 1998 making the head of state undefined again. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, kept official titles given to him by the late president and never formally became the head of state. During this period, the president of the presidium of the SPA exercised many of the functions normally granted to a head of state, such as receiving ambassadors. Titles used by Kim Jong Un have constitutionally defined him as the Supreme Leader, but not formal head of state. However, amendments to the DPRK constitution in 2019 have granted the chairman of the State Affairs Commission (later renamed to president of the State Affairs), a title held by Kim, the status of representing the state and receiving and appointing ambassadors, effectively making him the head of state.
Heads of state of North Korea (1948–present)
Kim Tu-bong 김두봉 (1889–1958)
Kim Tu-bong (Korean: 김두봉; 16 February 1889 – March 1958 or later) was the first Chairman of the Workers’ Party of North Korea (one of predecessor of today’s Workers’ Party of Korea, the other is Workers’ Party of South Korea) from 1946 to 1949. He was known in Korean history as a linguist, scholar, revolutionary and politician. His most famous work was under Ju Sigyeong; later, after participating in the March 1st Movement, he with other Korean leaders of the time established a provisional government-in-exile in China, and because of his communist beliefs he played an important role in the early North Korean communist government.
Choe Yong-gon 최용건 (1900–1976)
Choe Yong-gon (Korean: 최용건; 21 June 1900 – 19 September 1976) was the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army from 1948 to 1950, North Korean defence minister from 1948 to 1957, and the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 1957 to 1972.
Kim Il Sung 김일성 (1912–1994)
Kim Il Sung[d][e] (/ˈkɪm ˈɪlˈsʌŋ, -ˈsʊŋ/; Korean: 김일성, Korean pronunciation: [kimils͈ʌŋ]; 15 April 1912 – 8 July 1994) was a Korean politician and the founder of North Korea, which he ruled from the country’s establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. Afterwards, he was declared its eternal president. His birth name was Kim Song Ju (김성주).
He held the posts of the Premier from 1948 to 1972 and President from 1972 to 1994. He was the leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) from 1949 to 1994 (titled as Chairman from 1949 to 1966 and as General Secretary after 1966). Coming to power after the end of Japanese rule over Korea in 1945 following Japan’s surrender in World War II, he authorized the invasion of South Korea in 1950, triggering an intervention in defense of South Korea by the United Nations led by the United States. Following the military stalemate in the Korean War, a ceasefire was signed in July 1953. He was the third-longest serving non-royal head of state/government in the 20th century, in office for more than 45 years.
Kim Yong-nam 김영남 (born 1928)
Kim Yong-nam (Korean: 김영남; born 4 February 1928) is a North Korean retired politician who served as the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, from 1998 until 2019. Previously, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1983 to 1998. He was elected a member of the Presidium of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in 2010.
Kim Jong Il 김정일 (1941–2011)
Kim Jong Il (/ˌkɪm dʒɒŋˈɪl/; Korean: 김정일; Korean pronunciation: [kim.dzɔŋ.il]; also transcribed as Kim Jong-il and born Yuri Irsenovich Kim; 16 February 1941 or 1942 – 17 December 2011) was a North Korean politician who was the second supreme leader of North Korea. He led North Korea from the death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994 until his own death in 2011, when he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un. Afterwards, Kim Jong Il was declared Eternal General Secretary of the WPK.
In the early 1980s, Kim had become the heir apparent for the leadership of North Korea, thus being established the Kim dynasty and he assumed important posts in party and army organs. Kim succeeded his father and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, following his death in 1994. Kim was the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), WPK Presidium, Chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of North Korea and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the fourth-largest standing army in the world.
Kim Jong Un 김정은 (born 1984)
Kim Jong Un (English: /ˌkɪm dʒɒŋˈʊn, -ˈuːn/Korean: 김정은, Korean: [kim.dʑɔŋ.ɯːn]; born 8 January 1982 or 1983) is a North Korean politician who has been supreme leader of North Korea since 2011 and the leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) since 2012. He is the third son of Kim Jong Il, who was North Korea’s second supreme leader from 1994 to 2011, and Ko Yong Hui. He is a grandson of Kim Il Sung, who was the founder and first supreme leader of North Korea from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994.