Kim Jong Il is dangerous even when he’s not drinking. (From the Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001 American Spectator.)
(From the Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001 American Spectator.)
WHEN THE TWO KOREAN leaders embraced at the summit in Pyongyang in June 2000 the cover of that week’s Economist said it all: “Greetings, Earthlings.” It was the world’s first glimpse in a long, long time of one of its most reclusive strongmen, Kim Jong Il, of whom virtually nothing is known. The firmest personal information to emerge about the North’s Dear Leader was that he’s 5’3”, but his shoe lifts and pompadour cast even that in doubt. Over the years, however, the media was full of his exploits gleaned from various intelligence communities and North Korean defectors — some diluted, some embellished. But if even half of the stories are true, Kim is the kind of man who gives rise to legends.
Or so the North would have the world believe. Moscow archives place his birth on February 16, 1942, in a far-flung corner of Siberia, just outside the city of Khabarovsk, where his father had fled from the Japanese occupation of Korea. His official biography, however, moves his birth to a log cabin on Mount Paektu on the Korean peninsula’s border with China, the mythical birthplace of the Korean people’s progenitor. Kim’s birth, it’s said, was foretold by a swallow, and the event itself was marked by the appearance of double rainbows and unseasonable blooms.
In another strange sign of things to come, Kim at age four, according to a former aide to his father, would stamp on every earthworm and insect he could find.
When Kim was seven, his mother died. His father later remarried, to Kim Song Ae, but her name might as well have been Cruella. She despised her husband’s eldest, and would later work to advance her own four sons at every chance. Kim himself did not share a close relationship with his father, though he made pathetic attempts to endear himself.
During the 1960s, it’s thought that he trained as a pilot in East Germany. In the early 1970s, he had a fling with a Soviet movie star. In 1973, he married his typist. But movies, writing, and the single lifestyle proved to be his true devotions.
He’s an avid watcher of CNN, and television in general. He has a library of more than 20,000 videotapes — James Bond and Daffy Duck are among the Dear Leader’s favorites — and a staff of 100 to translate them. He’s penned a book entitled Essays on the Cinema. In a meeting with South Korean media executives in August 2000, he confided that, had he not “become a politician,” he “would have been a film critic or producer,” unaware, evidently, that he has become more than that. In the symbiosis of art and life, he is Blofeld, Dr. Evil, and Boris Badenoff wrapped into one.
In 1978 he ordered the kidnapping from Hong Kong of South Korean film director Shin Sang Ok and his girlfriend, actress Choi Un Hi. The pair was brought to Pyongyang because Kim wanted them to produce his movies. During a trip to Vienna eight years later they escaped. Kim was convinced, they say, the works would be an international success. Ever the director, Kim would sometimes throw parties only to watch them on a closed-circuit television by himself. “At the parties, we usually danced to the band music of foxtrot or disco and occasionally gambled playing blackjack or mah-jongg,” Choi later wrote. “Kim Jong Il was constantly offering me drinks, disregarding my weakness in drinks.”
That’s a weakness the Dear Leader never exhibited. He has an amazing capacity for alcohol and an especial weakness for cognac. For many years he favored Hennessy’s VSOP, or Very Special Old Pale, but in 1992 switched to Hennessy’s Paradis, a 50-year-old brandy — the oldest commercially available — at $630-a-pop. In 1994, Hennessy confirmed that Kim was its biggest single buyer of cognac two years running. Analysts estimate his account ran in the neighborhood of $750,000 a year.
In hindsight, North Korea watchers attributed Kim’s change in taste to a fierce, behind-the-scenes power struggle over who would succeed his father Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Though the Great Leader had anointed Kim his successor, the first dynastic succession of a Stalinist state, after his death it was far from guaranteed. Reports said members of the military were grumbling, and his stepmother pushed for her own son, Kim’s half-brother Kim Pyong Il.
Some believed gifts of fine brandy was Kim’s way of consolidating power. “Given that no one else in North Korea has access to such a precious commodity but Kim Jong Il, it’s likely he’s distributing it,” Seoul National University Professor Ahn Chung Si told the Asian Wall Street Journal. “[Koreans] give liquor to friends to buy influence; he is trying to influence a whole country.” Others poo-poohed talk of a challenge and simply chalked it up to Kim’s usual playboy ways. “Let’s say he and his friends really do have these all-night parties,” said Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. “How many bottles would it take to keep them going? If you do the arithmetic, it seems quite possible that there’s never really much left to give away.”
Kim can be gracious. Bang Young Choi, a 31-year-old North Korean defector and former importer for Kim, said the Dear Leader dropped by the office one day to congratulate workers on the fine job they were doing. He placed soup bowls in front of them, filled with cognac. “If you drink this,” Kim reportedly said, “you are a man.” Bang downed his and was soon reminded all too much of his own mortality.
He has a hypochondriac’s fear of germs and a paranoid’s eye for plots. All imported food is tested by a 40-member team of beefeaters. He likes fast horses and fast cars. A Daimler-Benz executive traveled to Pyongyang in 1998 and saw Mercedes cars and limousines everywhere. The businessman was especially surprised to see new S-class models, retailing around $100,000. When the executive expressed this astonishment, North Korean officials asked if he could send 200 more. The fleet would cost $20 million, a fifth of the aid promised North Korea by the United Nations that year.
Kim has a penchant for fast women, too. He reportedly maintains a harem that would bring glory to any sultan worthy of the name. To this day young South Korean women are haunted by tales of abductions, but visitors and defectors say Kim favors long, leggy blondes from Scandinavia. Early on he formed a “pleasure team” to service him and his father. He reportedly smokes Dunhill cigarettes — three packs a day — and likes to work at night.
THE DEAR LEADER HAS AN EVEN darker side. He is regarded as the mastermind behind the 1983 assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a state visit to Burma. Chun survived; seventeen others were killed. In 1987 Kim ordered the downing of a South Korean passenger plane. All 115 on board died. Western diplomats and intelligence agencies believe North Korea is a major middleman in Asia’s mushrooming drug trade, and sells weapons of mass destruction to rogue countries such as Syria and Iran.
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