Kim Jong-il: Wine, women and bombs

He has an expensive taste in cognac, an obsession with films and seeks comfort in the company of his Pleasure Brigade, but as he demonstrated last week, North Korea's dictator still lives for the politics of brinkmanship

The Observer, England/July 9, 2006
By Justin McCurry

It is a measure of North Korea's place in the world that a tiny, desperately poor state, governed in near paranoid secrecy, is led by one of the globe's most recognisable leaders.

Long before Team America: World Police, the 2004 film from the creators of South Park, which pilloried Kim Jong-il as a recluse plotting to destroy the world, we were familiar with images of the chubby dictator. There he was in his trademark Mao suit and oversized Elvis sunglasses, applauding his million-man army, the fourth biggest in the world. But we have also come to know another Kim, the dictator who rules the Stalinist northern half of the Korean peninsula with an iron first and who has a habit of shocking the world into taking him seriously.

Last week, he was up to his old tricks, throwing his toys out of the pram with such disregard for international opinion that even allies in Moscow and Beijing appear to be losing patience with him. With impeccable timing, North Korea chose to mark America's Independence Day with a fireworks display of its own, launching seven missiles into the Sea of Japan. In response, the USS Mustin, a guided-missile destroyer, was deployed to Japan yesterday. Why Kim chose to ignore weeks of warnings from Washington and Tokyo is still a matter for debate.

Second-guessing Kim's diplomatic manoeuvres is a growth industry. His critics condemn the missile tests as the acts of a belligerent madman, but more measured observers say they are another example of impulsive behaviour that, in the long run, brings results. After all, no sooner had the North Koreans said they were withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 2003 than China, Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan were inviting them to sit down and talk.

This time, his motive is, apparently, to draw the Americans away from their efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and concentrate their minds on North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, its desire for security assurances from Washington and its insistence that it will not return to talks until the US ends its (so far effective) crackdown on suspected North Korean counterfeiting and money-laundering operations.

Only the coming weeks and months will tell us whether the Dear Leader's diplomatic skills win him the concessions he craves. If Kim the statesman is tricky to interpret, Kim the man provides enough material to exercise the minds of a busload of psychotherapists.

As hermit-in-chief of the Hermit Kingdom, what little is known about Kim's personality has been pieced together from a combination of official propaganda and testimony from defectors and the exclusive group of outsiders who have spent time in his company.

Kim Jong-il was born on 16 February 1942, the son and heir of a man North Koreans would come to revere as a living god - the country's revolutionary founder Kim Il-sung.

Had Kim the younger not been groomed to succeed his father as ruler of North Korea, he might well have ended up making movies. Indeed, it is his obsession with films and his love of good food that have given us the most satisfying snippets of life chez Kim.

Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef employed by Kim in 1982, wrote of the leader's violent temper and of banquets lasting four days, at which he would order women belonging to his private entertainment detail (the Pleasure Brigade) to dance naked. Fujimoto managed to escape by claiming he needed to return to Japan to buy prized sea urchins; he now wears a disguise because he is convinced Kim's agents are out to kill him.

Other foreign employees weren't afforded the courtesy of an invitation. In 1978, Kim ordered his spies to kidnap Korean film director Shin Sang-Ok, and his actress wife, Choi Eun-Hee, to make propaganda films, including a revolutionary version of Godzilla

Shin spent four years in a North Korean prison being fed grass after numerous escape attempts; the couple made a daring escape during a trip to Vienna in 1986. In a 2003 interview, Shin, who died earlier this year, recalled his time as Kim's personal film-maker-cum-propagandist. 'What a wretched fate,' he said. 'I hated communism, but I had to pretend to be devoted to it, to escape from this barren republic. It was lunacy.'

The lunacy extends to Kim's foibles, namely his gargantuan appetite for food, drink and women. A habitual imbiber, he reportedly spends more than $650,000 a year on Hennessy VSOP cognac (the average annual North Korean wage is $900). He once knocked back 10 glasses of wine during a landmark meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000.

When he isn't delving into a vast library of films, reputed to number around 20,000, Kim's home entertainment is provided by the Pleasure Brigade, handpicked young women, some from overseas. He is petrified of flying, preferring to travel to Russia and China on his private train, although earlier this year he is thought to have taken his one and only recorded flight, from Pyongyang to Shanghai.

The idolatry surrounding Kim has produced some extraordinary claims. According to the propaganda, not only is he an expert horseman, but he has a photographic memory and superhuman powers of recall, and shot 11 holes in one during his first-ever round of golf.

But Kim has cleaned up his act in one respect: the 64-year-old gave up smoking in 2003 and promptly encouraged his people to do likewise. Smokers, he pronounced, are one of the 'three main fools of the 21st century', along with people ignorant about music and computers.

It comes as no surprise that confusion surrounds the family life of a man rumoured to have fathered 13 illegitimate children. He is estranged from his wife, Kim Young-suk, with whom he had a daughter. Kim Jong-chul, his heir apparent, was born in 1981 to a mistress who reportedly died of cancer in 2004.

The vivid private life can sometimes suggest a comic figure. He is, however, the dictator of one of the world's most illiberal societies, with its grinding poverty, labour camps and relentless pursuit of ideological purity among its 23 million people.

Defectors have accused Kim of involvement in the 1983 attempt to assassinate the South Korean President, Chun Doo-hwan, and in the 1986 downing of a Korean Airlines airliner in which 115 people died. He is also responsible for the deaths of millions of his own people in famines brought on by droughts, their effects magnified by gross mismanagement of the rural economy.

So is he mad? Not according to Jerrold Post, a political psychologist at George Washington University, who said after last week's missile tests: 'He's crazy like a fox, but he does have a very dangerous personality, what I call a malignant narcissism, which means such self-absorption that you can't really empathise with the pain and suffering of others, including the pain and suffering of his own people. He has had millions die and it does not have much impact on him.'

Defectors say Kim is more ruthless than his father ever was, micro-managing just about every facet of the regime, even the size of accommodation for other party officials, while he chooses from among his eight luxury homes, one for each North Korea province.

But signs of internal dissent have never produced the homegrown upheaval many hope for. In April 2004, a huge explosion rocked Ryongchon railway station, killing 54 people and injuring 1,249 others, just nine hours after Kim had passed through on his way back from China. Though some insist it was an assassination attempt gone wrong, others say the evidence points to a coincidental accident.

Last year, hopes that change was in the air rose again after reports that portraits of Kim were being removed from sites in Pyongyang and that the media were no longer referring to him as the Dear Leader. Either there was a deliberate campaign of disinformation or the changes were ordered by Kim himself in an attempt to quell the international ridicule he had learned of during his frequent sessions online. The insurrection never came.

That is not to say that Kim's regime is not in danger. The continuing US crackdown on alleged North Korean financial crimes, the mere mention of UN sanctions and warnings from Japan that it will cut off aid and private remittances if Kim does not change his provocative ways could leave the country vulnerable to a repeat of the catastrophic famines of the 1990s, when an estimated one million people died of starvation.

Yet even the mere suggestion of a conciliatory gesture by the Bush administration will prove what many have long suspected: that behind the potbelly and the bouffant hair, there is, indeed, method in the madness of Comrade Kim.

The Kim Jong-il lowdown

Born: According to his official biography, Kim was born on 16 February 1942, near Mt Paektu in North Korea. His birth, or so the propaganda goes, was foretold by a swallow and as soon as little Kim emerged into the world, a double rainbow appeared over the mountain and a new star formed in the skies. Soviet records show, however, that he was born in the Siberian village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk.

Best of times: His elevation to the position of general secretary of the Korean Workers' party in 1997, the final step before being named ruler of North Korea a year later, four years after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung. It was the first and, so far, only dynastic transfer of power in a communist state.

Worst of times: Seemingly irritating his old friends in China and Russia last week after test-launching seven missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US.

What he says: 'Glory to the heroic soldiers of the people's army!' Kim's only recorded public utterance, made into a microphone during a 1992 military parade.

What others say: 'An illustrious commander, endowed with outstanding commandership art and matchless courage and pluck.' Rodong Shinmun, the official paper of the Korean Workers' party, on the occasion of Kim's 63rd birthday in February 2005.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.