Kim Jong-il, North Korea's international man of mystery.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 25 2002 10:36 AM

Kim Jong-il

North Korea's international man of mystery.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyangology has replaced Kremlinology as the favored sport of Communist-watchers. It's a tricky exercise: Few know what really goes on inside North Korea, much less what motivates the nation's perplexing leader, Kim Jong-il. As a result, most North Korean analysts have a predictive record that rivals tech-stock analyst Henry Blodget's.

A quick scorecard: In 1994, when Kim Jong-il formally took power after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, most experts foresaw the almost immediate collapse of the son's regime. Kim Jr. was thought to be a drunken lech, too busy partying and chasing tail to survive long. But he kept a firm grip on power despite ruinous floods and a famine that killed upwards of 2 million of his subjects. Then, when Kim met with South Korea's Kim Dae-jung for a historic summit in June 2000, his image underwent a revision. The new Kim was rumored to be the totalitarian version of George W. Bush, a pampered political son who, after a misspent youth, developed into a capable leader. But last week, after North Korea acknowledged that it's been developing nuclear weapons despite promises not to do so, Kim's reputation was revised once again: North Korea's international man of mystery is more Dr. Evil than Austin Powers.

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Which isn't to say that he doesn't have a little Austin in him. After all, the 60-year-old Kim is a short, anachronistic party animalwho boasts a silly haircut, elevated shoes, and goofy glasses, and who almost always wears the same outfit. Although Kim's dissolute exploits have likely been exaggerated by South Korean intelligence, he's still thought to be a heavy drinker with a fondness for blondes. (Perhaps he was actually referring to his taste in women when he told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000 that, economically, he was intrigued by "the Swedish model.")

But Kim is a more serious leader than many first thought. He's been running much of the North Korean government for decades. According to Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig's North Korea: Through the Looking Glass, Kim's father picked Kim Jong-il to succeed him in the early '70s, after which the son slowly took control of the levers of power. He preferred to work behind the scenes, and in a sense he still does: Even in death, dear old Dad holds the titular position of "eternal president." (Think of Kim Il Sung as the dictator-for-afterlife.)

Like many sons, Kim didn't always want to follow in his father's footsteps. What he really wants to do is direct. Kim's video library reputedly contains between 15,000 and 20,000 films, and in 1973 he wrote a 300-page book on film, titled On the Subject of the Cinema. In a less academic vein, he authorized the separate kidnappings of a South Korean movie director and his wife in 1978. After keeping them apart for five years (with neither knowing of the other's whereabouts), Kim reunited them and explained that he hoped to turn North Korea into some kind of East Asian Hollywood with their help. The three made six movies together before the two captives escaped, including one that won a best-director award at a Czechoslovakian film festival. In a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the liberated actress-wife said Kim could have been a top-notch movie producer had fate not led him down the path of totalitarian dictatorship. "We nicknamed him 'micro-manager,' " she said. "He pays attention to everything. He keeps track of everything. He is simply amazing."

When Mr. Micromanager isn't on the set, however, his temper can get the best of him. His fingerprints are thought to be on a 1983 bombing that offed most of the South Korean Cabinet. He's also thought to have given the order to blow up a South Korean passenger plane in 1987, killing 115 passengers. The motive? Kim wanted to keep people away from Seoul's 1988 Olympics. The evils Kim has visited on his own country are even more horrifying—Stalinist gulags, secret police, and a populace that starves while Kim spends $900 million on dad's mausoleum. According to Anne Applebaum, visitors to Pyongyang report that starving women can be seen "surreptitiously eating grass in the city parks."

It would be easy to dismiss Kim as a madman, but his behavior is too consistent for that. The trick North Korea just pulled on the United States over the two countries' nuclear weapons agreement is a familiar one. As Asia analystChuck Downs has outlined, North Korea's negotiating behavior is predictable. First, North Korea "agrees in principle" to a deal; later, the North "reinterprets" the agreement; and finally, it blames its negotiating partner for "the failure of talks."

Kim has used these tactics in almost every one of his recent diplomatic efforts. The Korean peace process hasn't gone anywhere for more than a year: Since the historic Kim-Kim summit, Kim Jong-il has reneged on a number of agreements, particularly embarrassing Kim Dae-jung by not setting a date for a promised trip to Seoul. Kim turned to the same page of his negotiating handbook when dealing with Russia: Vladimir Putin thought he reached a deal with Kim to stop North Korea's development of missiles, but Kim later said that his remarks to Putin were a "passing, laughing matter" that the Russian president had taken too seriously. And now, North Korea attributes its failure to comply with its nuclear agreements to Washington's "hostile policy" toward it.

So, perhaps Dr. Evil isn't the right Mike Myers character to describe Kim Jong-il after all. He isn't a lunatic supervillain. He's just a fat bastard.

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