June 4, 2010 by markstani
This is an old piece from the Washington Post:
When the Dear Leader was born in a humble log cabin on Korea’s sacred Mount Paekdu in 1942, a bright star and a double rainbow appeared in the sky and a swallow descended from heaven to herald the birth of a “general who will rule all the world.”
A soldier in the army commanded by the Dear Leader’s father, the Great Leader, saw the star and the rainbow and rejoiced, carving a message into a tree: “Oh, Korea, I announce the birth of the Star of Paekdu.”
That’s the official North Korean version of the birth of Kim Jong Il, the brutal dictator who rules a nation that now taunts the world with its nuclear weapons. Western historians tell a more prosaic tale: Kim Jong Il was born in an army camp in Siberia, where his father, Kim Il Sung, and his tiny band of communist guerrillas had fled to escape the Japanese.
When it comes to Kim Jong Il, the truth is hard to locate, lost in the thicket of official North Korean mythology and the wild rumors spread by the South Korean media. Does the Dear Leader’s presence really cause trees to bloom and snows to melt? Does he really inject himself with the blood of virgins to stay young? Did he really get a hole-in-one the very first time he played golf? Does he really import Swedish blondes to satisfy his lusts?
Probably not. But the reality of Kim Jong Il is at least as strange as the mythology.
The Dear Leader is a pudgy 5-foot-3-inch Stalinist who wears elevator shoes and a puffy pompadour in an unsuccessful attempt to gain stature. Like Hitler, he’s an arty aesthete who prefers kitschy artifice to grim reality: While more than a million of his people starved to death in the last decade, he spent billions on gigantic monuments and elaborate stadium spectacles to deify his father and himself. He’s a movie producer who says he has always wanted to direct. And he once sent thugs to kidnap a South Korean actress and her director husband so he could force them to help build his country’s film industry.
His own bizarre story could make an interesting movie — a surreal epic with drunken orgies, exotic dancing, gourmet pizza, Michael Jordan, a crying contest, magical albino animals and a mummified corpse that reigns as “President for Eternity.”
“One of the most interesting questions about Kim Jong Il is: What does it mean to be the son of God?” says Jerrold Post, a George Washington University psychiatrist and a former psychological profiler for the CIA. “It’s hard enough to succeed a successful father, but it’s quite another thing if the father is elevated to a godlike stature.”
Kim Jong Il’s father was an uneducated guerrilla who transformed himself into a quasi-divine emperor known as the “Great Leader.”
Installed in power by the Soviet army after World War II, the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, ruled North Korea as a Stalinist dictatorship for nearly 50 years. In 1950 he invaded South Korea. He failed to conquer it, but after four years of war and more than a million deaths, he retained absolute power over his devastated nation, and he proceeded to kill or jail all his rivals, real and imagined.
The Great Leader had an insatiable craving for adulation. By the late ’80s he had erected more than 34,000 monuments to himself. His photograph was displayed in every building and pinned to the clothing of every citizen, right over the heart. Benches where he’d once sat were sealed in glass and turned into relics.
Like a king or a Mafia don, the Great Leader groomed his eldest son to succeed him. He dubbed Kim Jong Il “the Dear Leader” and called him “a genius of 10,000 talents.”
Apparently, one of those talents was literary. According to North Korean mythology, during the Dear Leader’s years at Kim Il Sung University, he wrote 1,500 books — an average of almost a book a day, a feat even Stephen King can’t match.
After the Dear Leader graduated in 1964, the Great Leader appointed him to a post in the ruling Workers Party. There, he replaced thousands of old party hacks with young party hacks loyal to him. His rivals tended to disappear.
But the Dear Leader was generous to his supporters. Like Elvis, he gave his cronies cars — generally a Mercedes with an elite license plate number that began with 2-16, after the Dear Leader’s birthday, Feb. 16.
When the Dear Leader got a crew cut, supporters did the same. When he let his hair grow and permed it into a puffy pompadour, so did his toadies.
The Dear Leader made no public appearances, but by the early ’80s he was running the government behind the scenes.
“Kim Il Sung reigned like an emperor while Kim Jong Il functioned like a prime minister in charge of the day-to-day rule, ” says Kongdan Oh, a Korean scholar at the Institute for Defense Analyses and co-author of the 2000 study “North Korea Through the Looking Glass.”
By all accounts, the Dear Leader’s favorite task was running the state propaganda machine, which he gleefully used to deify his father — and, by extension, himself. Today, his picture hangs next to his father’s in every building.
“It’s a cult of personality like nothing in history,” says Oh. “In North Korea, he and his father are like God and Jesus Christ.”
The Dear Leader also created a private dance troupe whose performances were racy, at least by North Korean standards. This appalled some of his father’s old comrades, including Hwang Jang Yop, the party ideologist who later defected to South Korea in 1997. In his memoirs, Hwang describes his “disgust” with the dances. But, he admits, he applauded with gusto to avoid angering the Dear Leader.
“Are you clapping because you really enjoyed the performance?” Hwang recalls a companion asking him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Just clap like mad. It’s an order.”
And . . . Action
The Dear Leader loves movies.
He has collected more than 10,000 videos. He told an American diplomat that he possesses every Oscar-winning movie. He loves “The Godfather,” James Bond flicks, the “Friday the 13th” series, Daffy Duck cartoons, anything with Elizabeth Taylor.
He poured money into the state film company, made 341 officially recorded visits to its studio, commissioned a 100-part serial on North Korean history and wrote a book called “On the Theory of Cinema Arts.”
He frequently demands — and of course receives — screen credits.
“Kim Jong Il can claim credit — I wrote it, I directed it — but it is lies, of course,” says Kongdan Oh.
The Dear Leader is a keen appreciator of cinematic talent and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get stars — even kidnap them.
In January 1978, while South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee was visiting Hong Kong, several men grabbed her and carried her, screaming and sobbing, to a freighter. When the ship landed in North Korea, the Dear Leader stood waiting on the dock.
“You have suffered a great deal trying to come here,” he said. “I am Kim Jong Il.”
She was driven to one of the Dear Leader’s villas and held under guard. Her husband, Shin Sang Ok, a prominent South Korean producer and director, was searching for her in Hong Kong when he, too, was abducted, knocked out with chloroform and shipped to North Korea.
For five years they were held captive — Choi in villas, Shin in a prison — with no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts. Finally, in 1983, the Dear Leader theatrically reunited them at a banquet at party headquarters. He apologized for kidnapping them, begged forgiveness and asked them to make movies for him.
When they agreed, he set them up in a luxury home, gave them matching Mercedeses and invited them to wild parties where naked dancers cavorted with drunken party bosses.
Over the next two years, they made seven movies for the Dear Leader. One of them, “One-Way Mission,” won the best director award at a Czech film festival in 1985. The Dear Leader was thrilled.
A year later, while traveling to Hungary, they escaped from their guards in Vienna and fled to the American Embassy. Stashed at a CIA safe house near Washington for two years, they wrote a memoir that became a huge bestseller in Asia, then moved back to Seoul.
In interviews, they were surprisingly kind to the Dear Leader. Sure, he drank too much, cheated on his wife and humiliated his underlings, they told reporters, but he was also smart, funny and hard-working — a man who would make a great Hollywood producer.
Choi told a story that made the Dear Leader seem almost charming: One day, he came for a visit and asked, “What do you think of my physique?”
She hesitated, pondering how to answer such a question when it comes from a short, dumpy dictator known to execute his enemies.
“Small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?” he said, smiling.
Tears of a Crowd
“Entering 1994, Kim Il Sung looked fine on the surface,” wrote Hwang Jang Yop in his post-defection memoir, “but considering the fact that he could not even control his flatulence when talking to us, I started to believe that his days were numbered.”
Hwang was right. On July 8, 1994, the Great Leader died of a heart attack at 82.
His death caused a flood of tears. Tens of thousands of Koreans flocked to statues of the Great Leader and wept uncontrollably. They cried, they keened, they wailed. Many fainted, several suffered heart attacks.
It was a genuine outpouring of grief by the people, but among the party elite, Hwang reveals, it soon became a contest to see who could cry most.
“There started an open competition of crying,” he wrote. “One might cry once or twice but there is no way to keep on crying. But since people had to continue paying respects to Kim Il Sung’s body, or offering flowers at his statue, they just pretended to cry, holding a handkerchief to their eyes.”
The orgies of weeping inspired a new myth for the cult of Kim, and it was soon featured in a propaganda film.
“When the most beloved leader Kim Il Sung passed away, thousands of cranes descended from heaven to fetch him,” the narrator intones mournfully over shots of cranes flying through gray skies. “But the birds couldn’t take him away because they saw that all North Koreans cried and screamed and pummeled their chests and pulled out their hair.”
Deeply moved, the cranes instead put Kim Il Sung to rest “in a heavenly palace built on Earth.”
That “heavenly palace” is the Great Leader’s Kumsusan Palace, which the Dear Leader renovated — for an estimated $900 million — into an elaborate tomb. There, the mummified corpse sits under glass, reigning as “President for Eternity.”
The Pause That Endured
At the Great Leader’s funeral, there were many eulogies but Kim Jong Il did not say a word.
The Dear Leader is not a great orator. In fact, he is not an orator, period. Before his father’s death he had uttered only one sentence in public. It came in 1992, at a celebration of the North Korean army: “Glory to the people’s heroic military!”
After the funeral, diplomats waited for an announcement that the Dear Leader had taken over the Great Leader’s job. No announcement came.
There were hints. The foreign minister declared: “The Dear Leader is the Great Leader and the Great Leader is the Dear Leader.” The new party slogan became: “Kim Il Sung is Kim Jong Il.”
Korea watchers predicted that the announcement would come after a 100-day mourning period. It didn’t. They predicted it would come after a one-year mourning period. It didn’t.
The silence from the capital of Pyongyang inspired endless speculation in the Western media: Kim Jong Il was sick. Or he’d been injured in a car accident. Or he was mute. Or he was battling rivals for power.
Around the world, journalists wrote profiles that recycled all the old rumors about Kim Jong Il:
He’s a drunk who buys more Hennessy’s top-of-the-line cognac than anyone in the world. He’s a womanizer who employs “pleasure squads” — perhaps blondes imported from Sweden — to satisfy his depraved lusts. He’s a basketball fan who loves Michael Jordan. He has an IQ of 150. He’s phobic about germs. He surfs the ‘Net.
The Dear Leader was (and remains) unavailable for comment.
“Kim’s apparent unwillingness to consummate the succession,” a Korea expert wrote in a scholarly publication in 1996, “is slowly driving policy wonks out of their minds.”
Finally, in September 1997, North Korea’s official news agency reported that a spontaneous groundswell of popular opinion had compelled the Workers’ Party to elect Kim Jong Il to rule the nation.
This momentous event caused pear trees to bloom in autumn. And fishermen netted a rare albino sea cucumber — a marine animal that had come to hail the Dear Leader’s triumph.
“Seeing the mysterious natural phenomena,” the news dispatch continued, “Koreans say that Kim Jong Il is indeed the greatest of great men produced by heaven.”
Let Them Eat Pizza
The Dear Leader rules a country in ruin.
Battered by floods, decades of mismanagement and cutbacks in aid from the former Soviet bloc, the North Korean economy collapsed in the 1990s. Factories closed, offices went unheated, electricity flickered on and off. In the countryside, peasants ate grass and bark.
“If you went a little outside the center of Pyongyang,” Hwang Jang Yop wrote in his memoir, “the roads were filled with people who were reduced to mere skeletons.”
At least a million of North Korea’s 22 million people starved to death.
The Dear Leader was not unmoved. He responded to the famine by executing his agriculture secretary.
In a rare speech in 1996, he said the starvation wasn’t his fault. “The Great Leader told me when he was alive never to be involved in economic projects,” he explained, “just to concentrate on the military and the party and leave economics to party functionaries.”
He did not promise to feed his people but he did promise to feed his million-member army. “If the U.S. imperialists know that we do not have rice for the military,” he said, “then they would immediately invade us.”
A fat man in a famine, the Dear Leader also took steps to guarantee his own supply of food, including pizza. In 1999, his agents recruited two Italian chefs and brought them to North Korea, where they set up a state-of-the-art pizza kitchen and trained the Dear Leader’s cooks in the fine points of gourmet pizza — a bizarre episode that one of the Italians, Ermanno Furlanis, later recounted in an article titled “I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il.”
Calling Dr. Freud
The Dear Leader’s personal life is a soap opera wrapped in an enigma.
His father was a tyrant who thought he was God. His mother died when he was 4, and a year later, he saw his brother drown in a pond.
His father remarried and, if we can believe the accounts of defectors, the Dear Leader hated his stepmother and cut her face out of family photos. He also resented his stepbrother, who was more handsome and popular. As soon as he acquired power, he shipped the stepbrother off to diplomatic posts in places like Bulgaria.
The Dear Leader fathered four children by four women. Or maybe it was three children by three women. It depends on which account you read. North Korea lacks a People magazine to sort these details.
His first wife was an actress named Song Hye Rim, star of the North Korean movie “Village at the Demarcation Line.” She was married when they met, but the Dear Leader sent her husband off to France. In 1971, she gave birth to the Dear Leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, but the marriage fell apart and she moved (or was sent) to Moscow, where she died in 2002.
Her niece and nephew defected, and they entertained interviewers with stories of the dysfunctional Kim family — at least until the nephew was murdered in South Korea, allegedly by North Korean agents.
Meanwhile, the Dear Leader and his various women produced another son and a daughter — or maybe two daughters. His current wife is a former dancer named Ko Young Hui, the mother of the Dear Leader’s second son, Kim Jong Chol, 22.
In 2001, the Dear Leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam — presumed heir to the throne — was arrested trying to enter Japan on a fake passport from the Dominican Republic. Accompanied by two women and a 4-year-old boy, he was wearing a Rolex watch and carrying a fat wad of money. Questioned by customs officials, he offered a simple explanation. “I wanted to go to Disneyland,” he said.
All this family drama and trauma could drive a man crazy. And Jerrold Post, the GWU professor and former CIA psychiatrist, believes that the Dear Leader has a serious mental illness.
“He has the core characteristics of the most dangerous personality disorder, malignant narcissism,” Post theorized in a recent psychological profile.
The disorder is characterized by self-absorption, an inability to empathize, a lack of conscience, paranoia and “unconstrained aggression.”
The Dear Leader, Post concluded, “will use whatever aggression is necessary, without qualm of conscience, be it to eliminate an individual or to strike out at a particular group.”
In 1998, the Dear Leader’s army launched a Taepo Dong ballistic missile that flew over Japan and plopped into the Pacific Ocean.
That act frightened North Korea’s neighbors, who were already nervous over reports that Kim Jong Il was secretly building nuclear weapons.
In January 2002, President Bush denounced North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” — a rogue regime “arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction.” North Korea responded by calling Bush’s statement “little short of a declaration of war” and promising to “mercilessly wipe out the aggressors.”
In October 2002, the Dear Leader’s government admitted that it was taking steps toward building an atomic bomb. American officials said they suspected that North Korea might already have a nuke or two.
In December 2002, while United Nations weapons inspectors watched, North Korean officials theatrically opened a nuclear reactor that had been sealed for a decade and celebrated with a round of beers. Then they kicked the U.N. inspectors out of the country.
In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq — another member of the “axis of evil” — and the Dear Leader’s government responded that the invasion proved that “to prevent a war . . . it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.”
In April, American newspapers reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was circulating a memo proposing that the United States and China team up to oust the Dear Leader’s government.
A week later, a North Korean official negotiating with Americans in Beijing announced that his country has nuclear weapons and threatened to either export them or conduct a “physical demonstration.”
A few days later, North Korea announced that it would regard any American attempt to impose economic sanctions as “the green light to a war.”
It was frightening — an escalating war of words that threatened to explode in a hellish nuclear holocaust.
On the other hand, there was one brief ray of hope. On Feb. 16 — the Dear Leader’s 61st birthday — North Korean television announced that the appearance of a rare albino raccoon was a sure sign of good times ahead.
“He was not some hysterical crazy person,” says Wendy Sherman. “He was very polite. He had things he wanted to say. He didn’t work from any notes or talking points. He had tremendous confidence.”
Sherman — who was special adviser to the president on North Korea during the Clinton administration — is one of the few Americans who have met Kim Jong Il. She spent two days with him during Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s diplomatic mission to North Korea in 2000.
Albright presented the Dear Leader with a gift — a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. They posed for pictures, then sat and talked for a while.
“He told us he had a surprise for us for the evening’s entertainment,” Sherman recalls. “He had something he wanted to take us to.”
The Dear Leader escorted them into a huge stadium. When they entered, a crowd of more than 100,000 roared. “For five or 10 minutes, people just cheered him and chanted his name,” she says. “It was just amazing.”
The Dear Leader waved. Fireworks exploded overhead. Dancers waved flags and pompoms. Acrobats rolled in hoops. For hours, thousands of colorfully costumed performers acted out scenes with such titles as “If the Party Decides, So We Do.”
The Dear Leader said he’d helped to choreograph the show himself.
In the stands, 25,000 people flipped colored cards depicting elaborate scenes. One showed the Dear Leader’s Mercedes driving through amber waves of grain. Another showed the launch of the Taepo Dong missile that terrified Japan in 1998.
“It was sort of a Super Bowl halftime show writ large,” Sherman says.
The next night, the Dear Leader hosted a state dinner that was followed by another show, this one less elaborate but still impressive.
Sherman turned to the Dear Leader. “Mr. Chairman,” she said, “I get the impression that in some other life, you were a director.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, beaming. “I love directing! I love the theater!”