(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.
But worse than any of these acts of terrorism is the complete disregard he has for his own people, from whom he demands utter fealty. Since 1995, U.S. officials estimate more than 2 million North Koreans have died of famine — roughly the same number as died under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. Certainly severe flooding and, later, drought are partially to blame, but Pyongyang did little to improve their lot, withholding food from international donor organizations, prohibiting peasants from cultivating anything more than their collective quotas, and failing to disseminate any agricultural technology or policies.
In February 1994, a senior Chinese military officer tipped off South Korean diplomats in Washington that a team of mainland neurologists was hurried to Pyongyang the year before. There they were shown X-rays of a “very senior official” with a very cracked marble. The account confirms many North Korea watchers in their belief that Kim isn’t dealing from a full deck.
But when it comes to international diplomacy — such as it is — he has proved a genius at playing the rest of the world, and particularly the U.S., for fools. In Communism’s heyday, North Korea limped along thanks to massive assistance from the Soviet Union. But once the sugar daddy fell, the North found itself alone and broke. Its predilection for belligerence has proved a reliable vehicle for extortion. Insincere promises to behave and abandon its weapons development and proliferation lead to more and more goodies. And with these perpetual negotiations comes a veneer of legitimacy as the world recognizes that Kim Jong Il is a man with whom to be reckoned. The Korean summit in June was no different.
While it was certainly a historic and perhaps even interesting spectacle, not much came of it. In a country where split families account for upwards of 10 percent of the population, Kim agreed to only a handful of family reunions. A promise for a future meeting was made. The South’s Kim Dae Jung, meanwhile, promised the North more development and aid of the sort that benefits the Workers’ Party elite alone.
But Korea watchers could barely contain their excitement. Stephen Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at U.C.-San Diego, exclaimed that “Kim Jong Il appeared relaxed, magnanimous and — above all — in complete control. Stereotypes of an insecure recluse, challenged from within and unable to manage a diplomatic stage, can no longer be justified.”
So is Kim Jong Il a changed man?
In May the dictator paid a secretive visit to Beijing, thought to be his first trip abroad since 1983 (also to China). The most interesting news to emerge was that Kim confided to cadres that he’d cut back on his drinking and smoking.
The next month, at a banquet during the Korean summit, Kim threw back ten glasses of wine. Just hours later at a signing ceremony for the joint communiqué that was supposed to herald the dawn of a new age in Korea, the two Kims celebrated with a glass of champagne.
Kim Jong Il chugged his bubbly in two seconds flat.