The death of Kim Jong-il probably marks the end of an era, the end of one family controlling the fates of 24 million people. Despite the fact that I have written about living dictators for many years, I managed to visit North Korea in 2007. It was easily the most repressive country I have spent time in…and I’ve visited some bad ones. In my book Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I gave Kim Jong-il second place behind Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.
A lot of commentators tried to dismiss Kim as a complete weirdo, but he was actually a wily despot, well aware of his portrayal abroad and ready to exploit it to get his way in international negotiations.
It is difficult to predict what will happen next in North Korea because the inner workings of the nation’s power elite are shrouded in secrecy. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong-il, took over the throne, many in the outside world thought the new leader wouldn’t last long because he was such a novice. But it turned out that his father had been training him for years in the arts of dictatorship and making elaborate practical preparations for his son’s ascendancy.
It is possible that the same process has taken place between Kim Jong-il and his chosen successor, son Kim Jong-un, but I am skeptical. Kim Jong-un could be allowed to remain as the figurehead leader to avoid the outbreak of factional battles. This has been the case with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is often presented in the media as an all-powerful dictator, but who would probably be bumped from power in a second if he pursued policies that went against the desires of the most powerful players in the Syrian military, the intelligence services, the government bureaucracy, and the Ba’ath Party.
It would not surprise me if the North Korean Communist leaders turned to the Chinese model of dictatorship: open the economy to profit-making, but continue to thoroughly control all access to information and brutally suppress the slightest expression of dissension.
I am reprinting here a modified version of the chapter from my book on Kim Jong-il. I have included a section on the history of North Korea and the rise and regime of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung. For those who are only interested in Kim Jong-il himself, I suggest scrolling down to the section called THE DEAR LEADER.
THE NATION—The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea occupies the northern half of the Korean peninsula. With a population of about 24 million, it has half the population of South Korea. Currently, North Koreans are more isolated than the people of any other nation in the world. The North Korean regime holds a special place in the history of dictatorships in that it is the first Communist government to pass on leadership from a father to his son.
THE CHOSUN PEOPLE—Although North Korea is viewed today as an extreme example of a Communist dictatorship, the roots of Korean authoritarianism begin deep in the peninsula’s history. First mentioned in Chinese chronicles in the 3rd century BC, Korea was known as Chosun, the land of “Morning Freshness.” The Chinese conquered the Chosun capital in 108 BC, but active resistance forced them to give up all but one of their colonies by 71 BC. Korean history comes to life with the Three Kingdoms period. The first of the kingdoms, Koguryo, was established in what is now North Korea. The other two kingdoms were Paekche and Silla.
Buddhism and Confucianism arrived in Koguryo from China in AD 372, and it was Confucianism that would, more than 1,570 years later, form the basis of the repressive regime founded by Kim Il-sung and continued by his son, Kim Jong-il. Confucianism teaches a reverence for learning, respect for the past, and worship of ancestors. However, politically it emphasizes centralized authority. The emperor or king has a mandate from Heaven, and he is expected to be virtuous and benevolent. His subjects are expected to be obedient and to pay him unconditional loyalty. The ruler has the exclusive right to deal with foreigners and to speak for his people. When Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il took control of North Korea, they used the concepts and references of Confucianism. The two Kims were “supreme and benevolent fathers of the nation,” the Korean Workers’ Party was known as the “Mother Party,” and the country was referred to as one large revolutionary family. In deference to the Russian and Chinese Communists who established Kim Il-sung’s regime, North Korea became Communist as well. However, in many ways, North Korea is less a Communist state and more a feudal kingdom that has adopted the terminology of Communism. In the hierarchy of power, the Confucian emperor has been replaced by the Kims, feudal vassals are now “party cadres,” and the peasants have been transformed into the “masses.”
The other historic factor that has permanently scarred Koreans is the seemingly endless threat from foreign invaders, particularly from the Chinese to the north and from the Japanese across the sea. In 612, the Koguryo army of 300,000 soldiers actually defeated a Chinese invasion force of 1,000,000 men. The Silla kingdom allied itself with the Chinese T’ang dynasty and, in the 660s, conquered Paekche and Koguryo. Then, in 676, with the support of Paekche and Koguryo, Silla pushed back the Chinese. The unification of the peninsula would last until 1945.
The Koryo dynasty replaced Silla in 935. Koryo is the source of the English word “Korea.” In 1259, the Mongols defeated Koryo after thirty years of fighting, and northern Korea was incorporated into the Mongol Empire. This was not a pleasant period for the Koreans. In 1254 alone, 206,000 men were captured and taken away. The Koryo princes were forced to live as hostages in Beijing, and Koryo had to donate large numbers of virgins to the Mongols, who proceeded to use Korea as a base for attacking Japan.
The Ming dynasty began in China in 1368. Twenty years later, the pro-Ming general Yi Song-gye seized control of the Korean government and ascended to the throne in 1392. The Yi dynasty, also known as the Chosun dynasty, lasted until 1910. Although it was the longest-lasting dynasty in Asian history, the governments of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il refused to acknowledge it as a worthy predecessor because, for much of that period, the Chosun were only vassals of the Chinese.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Koreans were again caught in the middle of battling powers. The Japanese invaded Korea with 160,000 soldiers with the intention of moving on to invade China. The Koreans, using the world’s first armor-plated warships, destroyed the Japanese fleets in 1592. The Japanese withdrew in 1598, but by that time the Korean peninsula had been laid waste and was swept by epidemics, famine, and peasant revolts. In a weakened state, the Koreans were ill-prepared for the next invasion, and were overrun by the Manchus, as the Chosun dynasty was reduced to a vassal state of the Chinese Ch’ing dynasty. In 1786, Christianity was banned, and in 1866 13,000 Catholics were executed.
By the 19th century, it was the turn of the Japanese to besiege and bully the Koreans. Beginning in 1876, the Japanese military forced Korea to open three ports to foreign trade, and by 1893, Japan accounted for 91% of Korea’s exports and 50% of its imports. The United Sates also got in on the act, signing a treaty of friendship with Korea in 1882. However, when the USS General Sherman entered Korean waters in 1866 and refused to leave, the Koreans sank the ship, killing all twenty-five sailors aboard.
The current North Korean regime hails as one of the highlights of Korean peasant history the Tonghak Rebellion of 1894. Korean rebels occupied the southwestern quarter of the peninsula, challenging the Korean government and calling for the withdrawal of Japanese and Western influence. The Korean government asked for Chinese intervention and the rebellion was suppressed. However, this incident ignited the Sino-Japanese War, which took place on Korean soil and which ended in victory for Japan.
Now it was Russia’s turn to pick on Korea. The Russian czarist government proposed that Russia and Japan divide the Korean peninsula at the 39th parallel. Instead, the two nations went to war in February 1904. When the dust and foam settled 19 months later, 150,000 people were dead and Japan was again declared the winner. As for Korea, it became a Japanese colony in 1910.
The thirty-five-year Japanese occupation that followed was bitter and brutal. The Japanese took over 80% of Korean farmland, drove off the Koreans, and brought in almost 350,000 Japanese immigrants. Approximately 750,000 Korean farmers fled to Manchuria in China and to Russia. Another 125,000 migrated to Japan. The Japanese went to great lengths to suppress Korean culture. They banned the study of Korean history, forbade the use of the Korean language in schools, demanded that the Japanese religion of Shintoism be taught to schoolchildren, and ordered all Koreans to take Japanese names. When another Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the Japanese forced Koreans to work in mines and munitions factories and then, in 1942, to fight in the Japanese army. Meanwhile, between 100,000 and 200,000 Korean women were forced to serve as “comfort women”—prostitutes—for Japanese soldiers. The Koreans did not take all this repression without fighting back. The largest pro-independence demonstration, involving an estimated 370,000 Koreans, took place in 1919. The Japanese responded by killing 6,670 of the demonstrators, wounding 16,000, and arresting at least 19,000.
The Sino-Japanese War was swallowed up by World War II, of which it became one of many fronts. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR decided that once Japan surrendered control, Korea would be temporarily divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets declared war on Japan six days after the conference ended and, a week later, Japan surrendered. The Soviet army occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel, while the Americans took over the south. A United Nations-authorized election in 1948 put Syngman Rhee in charge of South Korea. Rhee, who was seventy years old, had been educated in the United States at Princeton and Harvard. In the north, the Soviets installed Cho Man-sik, a popular non-Communist, as chairman, and Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, as head of the Korean Communist Party. Within six months, Cho had disappeared—never to be heard from again—and Kim was the undisputed ruler of North Korea.
THE GREAT LEADER—Kim Il-sung, aka The Great Leader, was born Kim Song-ju on April 15, 1912, in Mangyongdae near the current capital of North Korea, Pyongyang. His father, Kim Hyung-jik, and his mother, Kang Pan-sok, were Christians who were married at the ages of fifteen and seventeen, respectively. Kim operated an herbal pharmacy; Kang was a schoolteacher. The eldest of three sons, the future dictator of North Korea moved with his family to Manchuria when he was seven years old, spent two years in Pyongyang, and then returned to China at the age of thirteen. His ability to speak Chinese would come in handy later. Kim’s father died when he was fourteen years old. When he was seventeen, Kim was arrested for helping organize the anti-Japanese Korean Communist Youth League. Imprisoned for several months, he endured the Japanese “Finger-Breaking Torture.”
After his release from prison in the spring of 1930, Kim taught school for a while. His mother died when he was twenty-one years old, after which Kim joined an anti-Japanese guerrilla band and took the nom de guerre of a famous Korean resistance fighter: Kim Il-sung. He first gained a name for himself at the 1933 Battle of Dongning, when he and his band liberated a troop of Chinese soldiers who were surrounded by Japanese forces. The Japanese offered a reward for his arrest and once, thinking he had been killed, they actually paid the reward. However, Kim reappeared alive in a different region.
Kim Il-sung’s greatest guerrilla successes occurred in 1937. He beat back the Japanese in the snow at the Battle of Limingshui, and then he pulled off the exploit that he would later glorify to almost supernaturally heroic proportions. On June 4, Kim led 200 guerrilla fighters across the border from Manchuria into Korea and attacked the town of Pochonbo, destroying Japanese government offices, the police station, a school, and even the post office. The Japanese police pursued Kim’s guerrillas across the Yalu River into China, but Kim defeated the Japanese. He then joined forces with another guerrilla leader, Choe Hyon, and attacked a Japanese timber camp and seized hostages.
Kim continued to fight the Japanese, but in 1941, Kim and the rest of the Korean fighters were forced to flee to Russia, where Kim settled into a camp near Khabarovsk.
It appears that Kim Il-sung’s first wife, Kim Hye-sun, died in Japanese custody. In Russia he married Kim Jong-suk, the daughter of a poor farmer, who had joined the guerrillas when she was only sixteen years old. On February 16, 1942, she gave birth to Kim Jong-il, who would grow up to become North Korea’s Dear Leader.
When Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, Kim Il-sung was well-placed to take over the reins of power. Both the Soviets and the Chinese approved of him because he had lived in their country and he spoke their language, and the North Koreans considered him a hero because he had fought bravely for independence and had evaded capture by the Japanese. In addition, most of North Korea’s other prospective leaders traveled south to Seoul, assuming that Seoul would be the capital of Korea once it was reunified. Within a year, Kim had eliminated the opposition and consolidated his own power.
THE KOREAN CIVIL WAR—The Korean people had survived the Japanese occupation and World War II, but their ordeal was not over. Although separate governments were established in the north and in the south, both sides wanted reunification. The problem was that both Kim Il-sung of North Korea and Syngman Rhee of South Korea wanted reunification on their own terms. Both the Soviet Union and the United States withdrew their troops from Korea, leaving behind a few hundred “advisors” each.
Rhee was under great pressure politically. Although he called for an invasion of North Korea, he could barely keep together his own half of the country. Rebellions and uprisings were springing up, he had thrown about 14,000 political prisoners into jail and, on May 30, 1950, his party lost control of the National Assembly. Kim Il-sung, who had cut off power transmissions to South Korea only four days after Rhee’s election in 1948, considered an invasion of the south a “Fatherland Liberation War” that would free South Korea from a foreign-dominated government.
On January 12, 1950, the U.S. secretary of state, Dean Acheson, declared that Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter. Taking this to mean that the United States would not send troops to protect South Korea, and convinced that South Koreans would rise up to overthrow Syngman Rhee and would join his own forces, Kim Il-sung acted on his plan to invade the south. Cross-border skirmishes broke out in late June, and newspapers reported that South Korean forces had seized the North Korean town of Haeju. At dawn on June 25, North Korean troops drove across the 38th parallel. Unfettered by the internal dissension that Syngman Rhee’s government was facing, and with an army twice the size of Rhee’s, Kim Il-sung’s soldiers had little trouble sweeping across South Korea. Within three days they had occupied Seoul and, by September 5, they controlled all of Korea except for a small beachhead in the south. However, the uprising that Kim Il-sung had expected did not occur, and his troops were not greeted as liberators as he had expected. What’s more, despite Dean Acheson’s assurance of neutrality in January, U.S. president Harry S. Truman considered the North Korean takeover a threat to U.S. interests.
On June 27, the U.S. went to the United Nations Security Council and asked for authorization for military action. The Soviet Union could have vetoed this proposal, but it had been boycotting Security Council meetings since January (over the issue of Chinese Communist representation at the UN). The proposal passed and, for the first time, the fledging United Nations created a military force. The UN army was led by U.S. general Douglas MacArthur, but in addition to U.S. forces, it consisted of troops from fifteen other nations, including Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Turkey, France, and, of course, South Korea. The UN forces landed at Inchon on September 15 and quickly cut the North Korean supply lines. They recaptured Seoul on September 28 and, on October 7, they crossed the 38th parallel and entered North Korea. MacArthur’s forces seized Pyongyang on October 20 and reached the Yalu River that formed the border with China a week later.
The Chinese Communists, who had been in power less than a year, were alarmed by the unexpected arrival of enemy soldiers on their border, particularly after a few U.S. bombs “mistakenly” fell inside China. On October 25, the Chinese intervened on a massive scale. Usurping the power of Kim Il-sung, they took charge of the fight against the UN forces and sent about 300,000 troops into North Korea. General MacArthur was unprepared for the Chinese involvement and was forced to lead his troops on a difficult retreat. The Chinese and North Koreans expelled the UN forces from the north and reoccupied Seoul in January 1951. MacArthur and his men recaptured Seoul, and by June the battle lines settled back at the 38th parallel, where the war had started.
Truce negotiations began in July, but they stuck on the subject of prisoner repatriation, and the fighting dragged on for two more years. An armistice agreement was finally reached on July 27, 1953, although Syngman Rhee refused to sign it. A four-mile wide Demilitarized Zone was established between the north and the south, and the superpowers moved on to other issues and other conflicts. The Korean people, on the other hand, were left to recover from three years of war. Estimates of the number of South Koreans who died range from 500,000 to 1,000,000. In North Korea, the estimates ranged from 1,250,000 to 3,000,000. Eighteen of North Korea’s twenty-two largest cities were at least half flattened. American bombers had destroyed the irrigation dams that provided the water for 75% of the nation’s food production. Since 1952, most North Koreans had literally been living in caves and underground shelters.
THE KIM IL-SUNG ERA—Kim Il-sung survived in power throughout the Korean War and after and, indeed, for the rest of his life. Because U.S. troops had withdrawn from South Korea in 1949, and because Dean Acheson had declared South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter, Kim Il-sung considered American intervention in the war treacherous and made certain that every subsequent generation of North Koreans considered Americans to be murderous devils. This was an easy sell because the North Korean people had suffered so horribly from American bombs, napalm, bullets and bayonets. Kim was also humiliated that he had had to rely on the Chinese and the Soviets to be saved. He took it out on his own people, purging all members of the military and the government whom he considered possible opponents.
However, Kim Il-sung was most obsessed with gaining revenge on the South Korean government. Despite the devastation it had suffered, North Korea entered the postwar period with distinct advantages over South Korea. The north had inherited the industrial infrastructure that the Japanese had created, while the south had remained primarily agricultural. In fact, 60% of South Korea’s industrial facilities were destroyed during the war. North Korea, blessed with extensive natural resources, was able to rebuild with the help of aid from China and the USSR. For each year until 1974, the per capita income in North Korea exceeded that in South Korea.
In 1961, after Syngman Rhee won his fourth presidential election, the army in South Korea, led by General Park Chung-hee, seized power. Kim Il-sung launched a long-term program to destabilize Park, including an infiltration campaign that peaked in 1967-1968. The North Koreans eventually abducted 450 South Koreans, not to mention at least eleven Japanese. In January 1968, North Korean commandos attacked Park Chung-hee’s office and residential complex.
Two days later, the North Korean navy seized the Pueblo, a U.S. spy ship, and held its 83-man crew for eleven months. The following year, the North Koreans shot down an American reconnaissance plane, killing thirty-one, and also hijacked a South Korean airliner.
But Kim Il-sung’s most outrageous anti-South acts were yet to come. On August 15, 1974, Kim’s agents tried to assassinate Park Chung-hee. They missed Park, and killed his wife instead. Two years later, North Korean soldiers with axes and metal picks attacked a U.S.-South Korean tree-trimming crew, killing fifty-five Koreans and two Americans. In October 1983, two North Korean agents set off a bomb in Rangoon, Burma, killing seventeen visiting South Korean officials, including three cabinet ministers and the ambassador to Burma. And in November 1987, a North Korean agent placed a bomb on a Korean Airlines flight from Baghdad to Seoul, killing 115 people.
Of course, most of Kim Il-sung’s energy was devoted to domestic affairs. In 1972, Kim, who once called Josef Stalin “The Godfather of the Korean People,” pushed through a new constitution in which he gave himself complete power. He also developed for himself a record-setting personality cult. Among the many sobriquets that were used to refer to him in North Korean propaganda were:
The Peerless Patriot
The Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Brilliant Commander
The Red Sun of the Oppressed People of the World
and, needless to say,
The Greatest Leader of Our Time
After his death, his son Kim Jong-il would declare him President for Eternity and the 1998 constitution referred to Kim Il-sung as “a genius ideological theoretician.” (Kim Jong-il would become known as The Glorious Sun of the Twenty-First Century and The Leader of Steel.) Kim Il-sung did in fact create a political theory, muddled though it may have been. He called it juche, a term that foreign observers have had quite a bit of trouble defining. “Ju” translates as “main or fundamental principle” and “che” as “the body, self or foundation of something.” Kim Il-sung explained that juche involved “solving for oneself all the problems of the revolution and construction in conformity with actual conditions at home,” and added that man “desires to live and develop independently as master of the world and his own destiny” and to be “free from the fetters on nature and society.” Somehow Kim Il-sung managed to apply this gibberish to every aspect of North Korean society, so that even today peasants have to grow their crops using “juche farming,” according to which all decisions for planting, tending, and harvesting are made not by local farmers, but by the Korean Workers’ Party. Kim Jong-il later reamed juche “Kim Il-sungism.”
The glorification of Kim Il-sung reached something of a peak on his sixtieth birthday, in honor of which a 240,000-square-meter marble museum was opened to honor his life. Among the items on display were shoes, belts, and other pieces of clothing he had worn. Kim also turned his birthplace into a monument with markers to indicate where he used to sit on a swing, study, ride on a sled, go fishing. At one point, Kim Il-sung awarded himself a “double hero gold medal.”
For all his absurd excesses, Kim Il-sung really was respected by most North Koreans, who were grateful to him for fighting for and saving their country. Of course, this impression was based on false and exaggerated impressions of his achievements. For example, his 1937 guerrilla raid of Pochonbo, although legitimately inspiring to an occupied people, was built up into an epic, history-making triumph. Likewise, the role of the Chinese and the Soviets in first defeating the Japanese and then driving the Americans out of North Korea was expurgated, and Kim Il-sung was portrayed in schools and history books as having led the fight against the Japanese and having given the U.S. Army its “first defeat since the War of 1812.”
Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack on July 8, 1994. His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, spent an estimated $100 million to build a mausoleum to house and display his body. Out of respect for The Great Leader, his son, The Dear Leader, installed machines to air-blast the dust off the clothes of visitors and revolving brushes that cleaned the soles of their shoes.
THE DEAR LEADER—Few people dispute when Kim Jong-il was born—February 16, 1942—but where he was born is a subject of controversy. It would appear that Kim was born in a Soviet military camp near Khabarovsk in Siberia, where his parents, along with other guerrillas, were biding their time after being driven out of Korea by the Japanese. But since it just did not seem right to have The Dear Leader born outside of Korea, the North Korean propaganda machine came up with an alternative version of his birth. In this “official” version, Kim Jong-il was born at dawn on Mount Paekdu, at a secret camp inside North Korea. According to Kim Il-sung, his son was born “amidst the roar of gunfire on the battlefield” and “he grew up in clothes impregnated with powder smoke…. He grew up in the love of the guerrillas more than in my love.”
Kim Jong-il’s official biography goes into greater, gushing detail: “In the blizzard-ridden secret camp of Mt. Paekdu, the mother had brought up her son under a rain of bullets, covering him with the hem of her uniform which smelt of powder smoke….Ammunition belts were his playthings. The raging blizzards and ceaseless gunshots were the first sounds to which he became accustomed.” This glorified account also serves the purpose of justifying the fact that, unlike his father, Kim Jong-il, the commander-in-chief of a million-man army, had no military experience.
Regardless of his alleged origins on Mt. Paekdu, Kim Jong-il grew up with a Russian name, Yura, which was a nickname for Yuri. He used the name Yura all the way through his high school years, and he is identified as Yura in his high school yearbook. When he was about five years old, Yura underwent a traumatic experience. He and his younger brother Shura were playing in a pond when Shura drowned. Kim Jong-il’s responsibility in the tragedy is unclear. Kim also had a sister, Kim Pyong-il, but her story and whereabouts are unknown.
After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, Kim Jong-il and his family moved back to North Korea and settled in Pyongyang. When he was seven years old, his mother died in childbirth. That same year, he entered the Namsan School for children of the privileged class. When the U.S.-led United Nations forces overran Pyongyang in 1950, Kim Jong-il and his sister fled to Jilin in Manchuria, a city with a large Korean population. They returned to Pyongyang after Chinese troops retook the city. North Korean propaganda portrays Kim Jong-il as an exceptionally precocious, wise and intelligent child, while South Korean propaganda portrays him as a violent bully. Independent accounts of this period in his life are hard to come by. He graduated from Namsan Senior High School in 1960 and went on to Kim Il-sung University, from which he graduated in 1964 with a degree in political economy.
When you graduate from a university that bears your father’s name, it is not difficult to find a job. Kim Jong-il was given a position in the propaganda and agitation department of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee’s Organization and Guidance Department. This department was run by Kim Jong-il’s uncle, Kim Yong-ju, a man who was considered a likely successor to Kim Il-sung until Kim Jong-il gained sufficient favor in his father’s eyes to shunt aside his uncle. In 1973, Kim Jong-il’s father appointed him director of the department, making him, at age thirty-one, the second most powerful person in North Korea.
When Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and Kim Jong-il ascended to power, most foreign observers predicted that his reign would be a short one. The theory was that the younger Kim was too weak and too weird to run a country, particularly one with a strong military and a strong Communist Party. But unbeknownst to the outside world—and to the vast majority of North Koreans for that matter—Kim Il-sung had secretly designated Kim Jong-il to be his successor as early as 1972 or 1973, and he had been training him ever since and gradually turning over to him the responsibilities of state.
Kim Jong-il consolidated his power relatively quickly by seeking the support of his father’s former partisan comrades who were now in influential positions. Those who were not receptive to Kim Jong-il’s approaches paid the price. Vice-Premier Kim Dong-kyu ended up in a concentration camp, while Nam-Il, one of Kim Il-sung’s earliest comrades, was run over by a large truck in the middle of the night. Having established his position, Kim Jong-il prepared himself for the power-grabbing that might accompany his father’s death by gradually replacing thousands of party members at all levels with younger members who would be grateful to Kim Jong-il for their promotions and thus more likely to be loyal to him. It was not until 1980 that Kim Jong-il was publicly presented as the heir to the throne, and even then he was so infrequently seen in public that it was hard to take the designation seriously.
MAN OF THE ARTS—Kim Jong-il was unusually cultured for a dictator, most of whom have little time for such outside interests. He wrote a book, On the Art of Opera, and another on journalism according to the precepts of juche. He played the piano and the violin, and he was known to conduct a chamber orchestra at his private parties. He was also interested in architecture. It is said that he drove to high points above the city of Pyongyang and, if the view was inharmonious, he would order the construction of a building to fill in an awkward gap. But nothing compared to his real artistic love: the cinema. As early as the 1980s, Kim Jong-il possessed a personal collection of 20,000 films, and that was before he began acquiring video cassettes and DVDs. He boasted that he has seen every Academy Award winner, and he was a particular fan of James Bond films (exceptDie Another Day, which demonizes North Korea) and Gone With the Wind. He greatly pleased the North Korean masses by allowing American cartoons to be shown on television, including Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and Tom and Jerry. During the 1970’s, he produced six films. This interest in filmmaking led to the most bizarre episode in Kim Jong-il’s unusually bizarre life.
THE KIDNAPPING OF CHOI EUN-HEE AND SHIN SANG-OK—Cinema fans would be hard-pressed to find a movie director with a stranger career than Shin Sang-ok. Born in South Korea, Shin directed his first film in 1952. Over the next twenty-five years he directed more than sixty films, specializing in romantic historical epics. From 1964 until 1975, he owned the largest film studio in South Korea. However, in 1976 life took a bad turn for Shin Sang-ok. He had been married to a famous actress, Choi Eun-hee, who had appeared in more than seventy-five films. But after 23 years, the couple divorced, although they did remain close. Then Shin ran afoul of the South Korean government, which ordered that his films be subjected to strict censorship. When the censors ordered cuts to be made in his films, Shin replaced the deleted segments with black film so that his audiences would know that something was missing. South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee did not appreciate this gesture, and he ordered the revocation of Shin’s license to make films. After decades of success, Shin found himself without a job and fearful that Park had worse punishments in store for him.
Meanwhile, Choi Eun-hee was also in search of employment. In January 1978 she traveled to Hong Kong, where a friend arranged a meeting with business associates to discuss the possibility of financing a film in which she would star. After the meeting, Choi was kidnapped and bundled onto a boat. After eight days on the ocean, the boat docked at Nampo in North Korea. Choi walked outside and discovered someone waiting for her on the pier…Kim Jong-il. He was charming and polite and treated her as if she had come of her own accord. Choi was taken to a luxurious villa. Kim Jong-il sent her flowers and began inviting her to parties at his own villas. In retrospect, it is possible that, although Kim Jong-il did admire Choi’s acting skills, he was really using her as a lure to catch her ex-husband, Shin Sang-ok. If that was his intention, it worked.
All that anyone knew was that Choi Eun-hee had gone to Hong Kong and disappeared. Shin flew to Hong Kong himself, with the hope of finding Choi, but also in search of a way to resurrect his career in a country other than South Korea. Told that he might be able to obtain a passport from a South American nation, Shin got into a car with a man he thought was a friend. The car was stopped and surrounded by a group of Koreans who chloroformed him. Shin was so terrified that his attackers were agents of the South Korean CIA that he was actually relieved when he realized, by the dialect they spoke and by their use of the word “comrade,” that they were really North Koreans.
Shin was also put on a boat and taken to North Korea, where he was told that Choi was dead. He was held for six months in Nampo, where he was forced to watch Marxist films and attend dull ideological lectures. Held in another villa, Shin twice tried to escape. After the second failed attempt, Kim Jong-il ordered Shin to be imprisoned. He spent three months in solitary confinement and four years behind bars. Eventually, he agreed to “repent.” In 1983 he agreed to make films for North Korea. Released from custody, Shin was taken to a banquet hall, where he was introduced to Kim Jong-il and reunited with Choi Eun-hee. Shin and Choi, who later remarried, were given a mansion, servants, and matching Mercedes automobiles. Kim Jong-il ordered a film studio to be built and he gave them a $3 million-dollar-a-year budget. Shin directed seven films for Kim Jong-il, who allowed Shin to travel to film festivals in Communist nations, while Choi was kept in North Korea as a hostage.
In March 1986, Shin and Choi were given permission to travel together to Vienna. Seizing the opportunity, they bribed a taxi driver, enlisted the aid of a Japanese journalist who had been sent to interview them, eluded their North Korean minders, and sought refuge at the U. S. embassy. The CIA was understandably skeptical of Shin and Choi’s story, but the pair had brought with them a tape recording of Kim Jong-il discussing their kidnapping. The CIA flew Shin and Choi to Washington, D.C., debriefed them and gave them a house in Reston, Virginia. They lived under CIA protection for three years, during which time they wrote a book that became a best-seller in South Korea.
But Shin Sang-ok could not get the cinema out of his system. He wanted to make movies again and he wanted to do it in Hollywood. Shin changed his name to Simon Sheen, moved to Los Angeles, and tried to make deals. After a proposed project about Genghis Khan fell through, Shin had the Hollywood version of a brainstorm: Home Alone with martial arts. His idea was transformed into 3 Ninjas, which grossed $29 million and led to three sequels, one of which, 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, Shin directed himself. Shin died in April 2006; Choi is still alive.
It is not known if Kim Jong-il added the 3 Ninjas series to his collection.
LOVER AND FAMILY MAN—Kim Jong-il was five-feet-two-inches tall and weighed about 175 pounds. When he met Choi Eun-hee, he asked her, “Don’t you think that I look like a midget’s turd?” Despite being handsome-deficient, Kim Jong-il had an active romantic life. When he was twenty-six years old, he began an affair with movie star Sung Hae-rim, who was divorced and five years older than Kim Jong-il. The two lived together throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Remarkably, they managed to keep this fact secret from Kim Il-sung, who, early in the 1970s, ordered his son to marry Kim Young-sook, the daughter of a military officer. Kim Young-sook presented her husband with a daughter in 1974. However, Kim Jong-il already had a son by Sung Hae-rim.
Kim Jong-nam was born in 1971. He was raised in secret and was rarely allowed to leave the house. When he was eight years old, Sung Hae-rim’s sister, Song Hae-rang, was brought in to live with Kim Jong-nam, and her two children were given the position of his playmates. All three eventually defected from North Korea and it is their accounts that provide the most reliable details of Kim Jong-il’s private life. Kim Jong-nam grew up with a 990 square-meter playroom. He and his cousins were schooled at home and only allowed to go out after dark, in a car that they were not allowed to leave. When they grew older, they were permitted to leave the country to be educated in Geneva and Moscow. Sung Hae-rim died in Moscow in 2002. One cousin, Il-nam, was shot to death in South Korea in 1997.
Kim Jong-nam was considered the frontrunner to inherit the kingdom of North Korea until an embarrassing incident sent his stock plunging. In 2001, Kim Jong-nam was expelled from Japan when he was caught trying to enter the country with a forged passport from the Dominican Republic. Jong-nam explained that all he wanted was to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
It is not known how many other mistresses Kim Jong-il had, but he is believed to have had a daughter, born in 1969, with Hong Il-chon, and two sons in the 1980s with a Japanese-born Korean dancer named Ko Yong-hee, to whom he remained devoted until her death in 2004. Kim Jong-il appears to have been a reasonably attentive father, who enjoyed sitting on the floor and playing “Super Mario” with Kim Jong-nam.
THE KIM JONG-IL ERA—The 1970 edition of the Dictionary of Political Terminologies, published by the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences, denounced hereditary succession as “a reactionary custom of exploitative societies adopted by feudal lords as a means to perpetuate dictatorial rule.” This definition was deleted from the 1972 edition of the dictionary. Still, the idea of introducing hereditary succession to a Communist nation was a bit delicate, so Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il propagated the theory of the unfinished or perpetual revolution that needed a “reincarnation” of Kim Il-sung to carry on the revolution after his death. Who better to take the role of Kim Il-sung’s reincarnated spirit than his own son?
Kim Jong-il had the misfortune to begin taking over the reins of power just as North Korea’s post-Korean War economic growth began to peter out. Considering that Kim Il-sung was a lifelong military man with no particular aptitude for economic policy, it is possible that, seeing the handwriting on the wall, he let his son do the hard work of governing while he played the elder statesman and toured the country enjoying the adulation of the people.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-il, too, had no qualifications to oversee his nation’s economy. By the 1990s, North Korea was in serious trouble. Despite large-scale food imports, there simply was not enough to go around. The government instituted a Two Meals a Day campaign and a One Foodless Day a Month campaign. Kim Jong-il allowed foreign ownership of businesses in special economic zones, but, in at least one case, he built a 50-mile fence around a free economic zone to prevent contact between North Koreans and the foreigners. Russia and China demanded repayment of loans and refused to continue trade on the barter system, demanding hard currency instead. As if this wasn’t bad enough, North Korea experienced major flooding in both 1995 and 1996, followed by a severe drought in 1997 that cut the important corn crop in half.
All of these misfortunes were aggravated by Kim Jong-il’s personal extravagances and massive military expenditures, which were estimated to make up 30% of the national budget. In 2004 there were 1.2 million people in the North Korean armed forces and 6 million in the reserves. Twelve percent of the male population between the ages of seventeen and forty-nine were in the armed services. In 1998, UNICEF reported that 63% of North Korean children were stunted and, according to a 2002 United Nations-European Union survey, the average seven-year-old boy in North Korea was 20 centimeters (7½ inches) shorter than the average seven-year-old boy in South Korea and 10 kilograms (22 pounds) lighter. Between 1995 and 2001, approximately 300,000 North Koreans fled to China, three-quarters of them women. Although exact figures are impossible to obtain, it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 North Koreans died from famine-related illnesses.
While the general populace was suffering, the North Korean military set up its own separate economy, selling Scud missiles and other weapons to Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, and other nations. In addition, Kim Jong-il created his own private business entity, “Division 39,” the profits from which he tucked away in banks in Switzerland and Macao. Some of Division 39’s businesses were legitimate, dealing in seafood, ginseng, gold, silver, and magnesium. But there is also evidence that Kim Jong-il lined his pockets with the profits from counterfeiting U.S. dollars and from the smuggling of heroin and methamphetamines, which was reputed to gross $500 million a year.
RELATIONS WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD—Kim Jong-il could be a bit testy, particularly when it came to relations with South Korea. A couple of incidents illustrate this point. In November 1997, KBS-TV, South Korea’s state-run television station, aired a mini-series that portrayed repression and corruption in North Korea. The North Korean government responded by issuing an official statement threatening to kill everyone involved in the production and broadcasting of the mini-series. In July 2000, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published an article claiming that the 1950 Korean War had been ignited by North Korea invading South Korea. The North Korean response was to publicly threaten to “blow up” the Chosun Ilbo offices.
No aspect of North Korean policy has caused greater concern than its threats to build nuclear weapons. The USSR first supplied the materials for and oversaw construction of a small, 4-megawatt nuclear reactor in North Korea in 1962. In 1977, the North Koreans accepted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. During the 1980s the North Koreans built their own 30-megawatt reactor. Originally, this interest in nuclear reactors was nothing more than one component of Kim Il-sung’s quest for energy self-sufficiency. However, Western nervousness about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities led Kim Jong-il to realize that the threat of building nuclear weapons could be used as a bargaining chip, as could North Korea’s development and sale of other weapons. For example, when a delegation of U.S. congressional staffers visited North Korea in August 1998, North Korean officials offered to stop the sale of ballistic missiles to Iran and other nations in exchange for $500 million a year.
Kim Jong-il did accept the presence of IAEA inspectors beginning in 1992, and in 1994 he agreed to freeze his nuclear program in exchange for U.S. fuel deliveries. On August 15, 1997, Kim Jong-il stunned the North Korean people by telling them that the United States was no longer an enemy. “They are our friends,” he declared. This softening of relations with the outside world was furthered in 1998 when Kim Dae-jung, the newly elected president of South Korea instituted his Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. In June 2000, Kim Dae-jung traveled to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-il, the first-ever summit between the leaders of North and South Korea. For the first time, Kim Jong-il admitted to the kidnapping of South Koreans and Japanese. Kim Jong-il also met with U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and jokingly introduced himself as “the last of the Communist devils.”
Kim Jong-il also made certain that other nations retained their fear of North Korea. As a reminder that he was not going soft, North Korea, on August 31, 1998, launched a missile test which happened to pass straight over Japan. Still, Japan, South Korea and much of the rest of the world were feeling less worried about North Korea until George W. Bush took over as president of the United States. Bush ended fuel deliveries to North Korea, stopped negotiating with the North Koreans, and declared North Korea a member of his Axis of Evil and Kim Jong-il a “pygmy.” Kim Jong-il responded by restarting his nuclear program, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and reactivating his nuclear reactor. It is said that when George Bush invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il feared that he would be next. However, it is just as likely that Kim learned a different lesson: to survive the era of George W. Bush, build a nuclear bomb.
TOTAL CONTROL—The people of North Korea have never known freedom. After centuries of feudalism, they experienced Japanese colonialism and the Stalinism of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Some of the elements of the system of social control in North Korea are almost silly. Cellphones were banned because they might be used to detonate bombs. The tuners on radios were fixed so that unauthorized channels could not be accessed, and security officials made unannounced visits to people’s homes to make sure no one was cheating.
In 1978, the government introduced a new calendar based on the birth of Kim Il-sung in 1912, so that 2011 is now referred to as “Juche 100.” In primary school, students spend one hour a week studying about the childhood of Kim Il-sung. In Korean language class, more than 60% of the time is spent reading about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. In all texts, the names of the two Kims are always printed in boldface. In arithmetic, word problems are based on computing how many American soldiers were killed in the Korean War or how many tanks the North Korean army destroyed.
But most of North Korea’s repressive techniques are deadly serious. In a speech in 1970, Kim Il-sung publicly acknowledged a program that had begun in 1958, in which the authorities divided the entire North Korean population into three classes of “Loyalty Groups.” The core class, made up of roughly a quarter of the people, are those whose families, in the pre-liberation era (before 1945), were soldiers, poor farmers, workers, or office clerks, as well as those families whose members were killed in the war. Members of the core class are given priority in housing, food, and medical care.
The wavering classes, half the population, are pre-liberation merchants, farmers, and service workers, as well as immigrants from South Korea, China, and Japan, and families whose members left for South Korea, but stayed behind themselves.
The third group is the hostile class, from families that were pre-liberation wealthy landlords or merchants, as well as religious scholars and those who have expressed dissatisfaction, even in private, with the Kims and their regime. Members of the hostile class are not allowed to live in Pyongyang. Needless to say, they receive the worst jobs, the worst housing, and the minimum of food rations. All citizens of North Korea are monitored by the Ministry of People’s Security, which places informers in workplaces and neighborhoods to inform on anyone who criticizes the regime, even at home. Among the crimes for which one may be punished are disloyalty to The Great Leader and to The Dear Leader, an offense that includes allowing pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to gather dust and allowing pictures of the Kims that appear in magazines or newspapers to be torn or folded.
Below the loyalty groups, like untouchables in the Hindu caste system, are the 250,000 people who are held in prison camps. It is not only people accused of crimes who are sent to these camps, but their families as well. Following the concept of yongoje, family purge, North Korean officials will round up and imprison, or at least banish, three generations of the family of a transgressor, including uncles, aunts, and cousins. Sometimes friends and work colleagues are punished as well. One case reported by Human Rights Watch was that of Kim Young. Kim was an official of the State Security Bureau when it was discovered that his father had been executed as a CIA spy thirty-six years earlier. Kim Young was immediately sent to prison, where he met his mother, who had been incarcerated since her husband was executed.
Accounts of the prison camps, which have been brought out by former prisoners, and even escaped guards, are harrowing. A 2003 report identified thirty-six forced labor camps, one of which was three times as large as Washington, D.C. There are reports of forced abortions, babies being killed, people sent to the “Discipline Department” for laughing or for looking at their reflection in a window, and informers staying awake through the night to report on what prisoners say when they talk in their sleep. A 1987 riot at Onsung Prison led to the killing of 5,000 prisoners. Prisoners work up to nineteen hours a day and products made by forced labor, including clothing, have been found to be “washed” through China and discovered on shelves in the United States. According to one prisoner, working with livestock is a good job because it is possible to steal the animals’ food and to pick through animal dung for undigested grain. On the prison cell walls are slogans such as “adore the authorities of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with all your heart.”
EXCESSES AND BIZARRE BEHAVIOR:
· In honor of Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday, North Korea built a triumphal arch in Pyongyang that is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but larger, and a Torch of Juche Idea monument made from 25,550 white granite blocks, one for each day of Kim Il-sung’s life, that is one meter higher than the Washington Monument.
· Peeved by South Korea’s coup in hosting the 1988 Olympics, Kim Jong-il spent $4.3 billion to prepare for the Thirteenth World Festival of Youth and Students held in Pyongyang in 1989. Large apartment buildings were built to house visitors, but without the use of construction elevators, which led to the death of more than 1,000 workers in three years.
· In 1996, Kim Jong-il suddenly took great interest in Pyongyang’s female traffic police, who are known for their beauty. He ordered new uniforms for them with padded trousers to keep them warm.
· In 1974, Kim Jong-il decided that North Korean radio was not playing enough music. He personally listened to thousands of songs and then chose 330 to be played on air. Three years later, he added another 1,177 songs.
· Kim Jong-il never gave a major speech or spoke to a large crowd. Although the government often stages mass rallies, at which up to one million North Koreans will march in columns fifty abreast, Kim’s only known utterance at such an event was at a 1992 military parade, when he called out, “Glory to the heroic Korean People’s Army.”
· Every room in every building must display photographs of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and special kits are distributed to clean the pictures.
· Every North Korean must wear a lapel pin with a photo of either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il.
· Choi Eun-hee reported that at one of the parties she attended, Kim Jong-il served her a bottle of wine with a live snake inside.
IN HIS WORDS:
Advice for broadcasters:
“Every word they speak before their microphone must grasp the hearts of the masses of people, inspire them strongly, scare the enemy like a bomb…”
From The Great Teacher of Journalists: Kim Jong-il
Advice to journalists:
“It is advisable that the newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the President in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader.”
December 26, 1973
“The U.S. imperialists and their stooges are saying that we have no ideological freedom….Our people have accepted the Juche idea…as their conviction of their own accord…”
May 5, 1991
“If we weaken the dictatorial function of the government…we cannot provide the people with democratic freedom and rights…”
January 3, 1992
POEM—According to an official biography, Kim Jong-il: The People’s Leader, while a student in junior middle school, Kim Jong-il, worried because his father was working late, wrote this poem.
Couldn’t a Second be an Hour?
Yesterday and today
In summer and in winter
A day has twenty-four hours.
There’s no change
In the flow of time.
The hands of the table clock
In father’s sleeping room
Are running so fast.
What’s chasing them?
The night’s already deep
But father isn’t back yet.
Time flows mercilessly
And time for father’s rest
Dwindles second by second.
Who ever understands
This uneasiness of mine?
You, clock, slow down your speed,
Couldn’t a second be an hour
At least during father’s rest?...