Obituary: Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator, who died on Saturday aged 69, presided over the systematic impoverishment and starvation of millions of his people, while enjoying the life of a spoiled playboy – fast cars, fast women, cellars of vintage French wines, and a passion for Rambo and Daffy Duck videos.
The son of North Korea’s self-styled “Great Leader” Kim il Sung, Kim Jong-il (known as “Dear Leader”) became the first ruler of a Communist state to gain power through inheritance — on his father’s death in July 1994. A pudgy, unprepossessing figure with bouffant hair and platform shoes, Kim Jong-il was initially thought to lack the elder Kim’s low cunning and populist flair.
Many predicted that his tenure would be short-lived. Not only did he appear to lack support in North Korea’s all-important military, but he faced opposition from within the Kim family circle. Kim il Sung’s second wife, Kim Song Ae, had never got on with her stepson and was said to be pressing the claims of her own son, Kim Pyong-il.
Kim il Sung had maintained his grip on power through “Juche” — a philosophy based on an eccentric blend of Stalinist repression, an all-pervasive personality cult, total isolation from the outside world and paranoid hostility towards South Korea and its capitalist allies. Over nearly five decades in power he had reduced his country to a destitute fortress-state with a standing army of 1.2 million out of a population of some 20 million. The combination of barbarism, isolation and eccentricity was an Orwellian nightmare beside which Enver Hoxha’s Albania seemed a bastion of liberal enlightenment.
During his father’s lifetime Kim Jong-il made an art of being invisible in his own country. The only time he is ever known to have spoken in public was in April 1992, when, during a military parade, he was heard to blurt out: “Glory to the officers and soldiers of the Korean people”. Yet after his accession, it became clear that he was his father’s son — unpredictable, wily and ruthlessly determined to sustain his power by any means. “Expect no change from me,” he said after the Great Leader died. He was as good as his word.
Officially, Kim Jong-il was born in 1941 on the slopes of Mount Paektu, on the border with China — the mythical birthplace of the Korean people and the place from which Kim il Sung is said to have waged his guerrilla struggle. In search of miracles with which to deify the young Jong-il, state hagiographers borrowed heavily from Christian tradition. Just before the birth of the junior Kim, according to the official account, a swallow descended from heaven to announce the coming of “a prodigious general, who will rule all the world”. A bright star shone over Jong-il’s nativity, although instead of a stable he was born in a log cabin. The humble abode stands to this day – as it should, since it was in fact built only in 1986.
The reality is that Kim was born on February 16 1942 close to Khabarovsk, Siberia, where his father had taken refuge from the Japanese, then occupying Korea. The earliest photograph shows Yuri, as the child was nicknamed by the Russians, as a chubby little boy in a Soviet naval cadet’s uniform.
He is said as a child to have acquired occult powers, having as a three-year-old daubed black paint on a map of Japan, with the result that typhoons soon lashed the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, he had a troubled upbringing: a younger brother drowned in childhood, and his mother died when he was seven years old, shortly after his father had been installed as Stalin’s puppet in North Korea. In 1950 the Korean War broke out, and Kim was sent to Manchuria, not returning home until three years later when the war ended.
Of Kim’s life before 1994, little is known for certain. After his graduation from Kim il Sung University, he is said to have trained as a pilot in the former East Germany, and there are unsubstantiated reports of trips to China and a “tropical island”, possibly Cuba. It was rumoured that his father had little time for him and, until the 1970s, that his younger brother, Kim Pyong-Il, was being groomed for the succession.
Kim’s ascent to power began in 1975, when he was reportedly made a member of North Korea’s politburo and put in charge of the cultural scene. The six operas he composed during a period of two years were said to be “better than any mankind had ever created”, though, sadly, no recordings appear to have been allowed out of the country. Kim Pyong-Il meanwhile, was posted to a series of distant embassies to keep the two brothers apart.
One thing that was never in question was Kim’s passion for the cinema. In 1978 he ordered the abduction of a South Korean director, Shin Sang Ok, and his wife, an actress. They were brought to Pyongyang, locked up for five years in prisons and re-education camps, then released to “assist” with the development of the North Korean film industry. They escaped after eight years, and their account of their time in the North represents one of the best sources of information about Kim. On their first meeting, Kim asked the director: “What do you think of my physique? Small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?”
Shin reported that Kim Jong Il based his understanding of capitalism on Hollywood films — favourites being James Bond, Rambo and Daffy Duck — and Hong Kong action pictures. But he was not entirely ignorant. When Shin and his wife escaped from North Korea they carried with them secretly-made recordings of private conversations with Kim, in which he apparently acknowledged that North Korea’s brand of Socialism was flawed; that its technology was at a “kindergarten level”; that its people lacked motivation because they had no incentives; and that anyone in North Korea who said as much would be purged.
In 1980 Kim was officially designated “Dear Leader” and his father’s acknowledged heir; coincidentally, the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences expunged the definition of hereditary rule as “a reactionary custom of exploitative societies” from its Dictionary of Political Terminologies.
Even after he had been publicly anointed as successor, Kim kept a low profile. Diplomats who asked to meet him were fobbed off with excuses of his being in the countryside among the people. Indeed, so complete was the secrecy that it was only in 1992 that the CIA learned that Kim had two children, already grown up. Meanwhile, direct evidence of his continued existence derived from Thai and Swedish prostitutes who had apparently been flown in especially for the Dear Leader. There were stories of his arranging parties and then watching the entire proceedings in private on video monitors.
But it was always difficult to distinguish fact from propaganda — issued from the South as well as the North. Seoul was quick to blame Kim for organising the bombing of the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and for the blowing-up of a South Korean jet over the Andaman Sea in 1987 — but there is no proof that he was involved.
It does, however, seem likely that he played a part in the country’s nuclear policy. His name appeared on North Korea’s withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and he was widely credited with masterminding the country’s weapons programme. If so, he played his cards well, demanding trade concessions and diplomatic recognition, and winning time during which the programme could develop.
But he did not hold a position of real power until 1991, when he took control of the Armed Forces — despite his lack of military experience. There were reports that several officers were executed for objecting, and analysts believe that he was given the position to counter potential resistance to his succession.
The news of Kim il Sung’s death in 1994 was accompanied by wild scenes of public mourning in North Korea. After his father’s elaborate public funeral, Kim Jong-il dropped out of sight and it was some time before it was clear that he had established his grip on power. Under his newly-organised government, Kim’s deceased father was deemed “Eternal Leader” and the presidential post left unclaimed. It was three years before Kim took over the leadership of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, though officially the country remained a necrocracy.
One of Kim Jong-il’s first initiatives was to call on the UN for help in feeding North Korea’s starving population. This request was seen as a hopeful sign, as international aid on the scale required would inevitably come with strings attached. But it quickly became clear that Kim was no more prepared to expose his country to foreign scrutiny to save his people than his father had been. He did nothing to relax the control of the state over all aspects of economic life. The few foreign aid workers who received visas were kept penned up in Pyongyang while Kim proclaimed that “Imperialist aid is a noose of plunder and subjugation, aimed at robbing 10 and even 100 things for one thing that is given.”
Much aid did get through, but the bulk appears to have been hijacked to feed the party elite and keep the military on side. It is estimated that between two and three million North Koreans succumbed to starvation in Kim’s first decade in power — a tenth of the population. Escapees spoke of scavenging bands of skeletal orphans gnawing on bark and leaves, and human flesh being sold for meat in the country’s depleted markets.
Kim’s unpredictable approach was evident in other areas too, with charm offensives interspersed with tirades and periods of paranoia. In 1996 his subordination of his father’s “Juche” philosophy to a more militant “Red Banner” policy led to the dramatic defection of the 74-year-old Hwang Jang Yop, the architect of Juche and the first high-level official to seek asylum in South Korea.
Yet a few years later Kim the warmonger was replaced by Kim the peacemaker, intent on seizing the olive branch held out by South Korea, which had adopted a policy of engagement. In 2000 he embraced the cause of reunification between the two countries in a historic meeting with its President Kim Dae Jung, a stage-managed junket which, as it subsequently transpired, had been lubricated by the illegal transfer of $100 million of South Korean government money into Kim Jong-il’s coffers. But the two sides were subsequently unable to agree on any substantial improvement in their relations.
More promisingly, a visit by President Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in the same year extracted a promise that North Korea would not pursue its nuclear weapons programme if America would agree to pay for a nuclear energy facility. After the visit Madeleine Albright said she did not find Kim as weird as his reputation suggested, describing him as “perfectly rational, isolated but not uninformed”.
But Kim’s apparent willingness to engage in dialogue faded with the arrival of the new Bush administration and the President’s declaration in his 2002 State of the Union address that North Korea, Iran and Iraq made up an “axis of evil”. Angered by the apparent reversal in American policy, Kim reverted to his eccentric persona again, openly boasting that, contrary to previous assurances, North Korea had not halted its nuclear weapons programme after all and that a project to produce highly enriched uranium had been under way since 1998.
Washington promptly cut off heavy-fuel shipments to the North but, preoccupied with the crisis in Iraq, did little else. Apparently smarting from the brush-off, North Korea then sought to escalate matters by throwing out the nuclear inspectors, withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, declaring its intention to reprocess some 8,000 spent fuel rods and hinting at the existence of an armoury of “more powerful” weapons — presumably biological or chemical. International food aid was cut off on American orders, plunging the North Koreans into further misery, while leaving the regime unscathed. “I know I’m an object of criticism in the world,” Kim told a Russian diplomat, adding illogically, “But if I am being talked about, I must be doing the right thing.”
Later there were signs of a thaw in relations between Kim and his detractors in the West. Although in October 2006 North Korea claimed that it had successfully conducted an underground nuclear test, a year later Kim announced that his nation would disable its main nuclear reactor under the eyes of American experts. He also held a summit meeting with Roh Moo-hyun, President of South Korea, at which the two leaders agreed to seek a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War.
Away from high politics, Kim Jong-il was said to take pleasure in caviar, Hennessy Cognac and his troupe of 2,000 dancing girls, recruited from the country’s high schools as teenagers to perform in “pleasure groups” in the dictator’s 32-odd villas and palaces — before being pensioned off at 25. Each pleasure group was composed of three teams: a “satisfaction team”, which performed sexual services; a “happiness team,” which provided massage; and a “dancing and singing team”. Visitors were treated to choreographed stripteases, though only Kim was allowed to avail himself of the other services.
But Kim’s late-night activities were not all recreational. He was reputed to be an almost fanatical micro-manager of his country, making phone calls and faxes at all hours and touring the country indefatigably, dispensing nuggets of advice that could not be ignored. On one visit to a factory where none of the workers owned an overcoat, he took off his own before having his picture taken with them. The gesture from their Dear Leader was said to have touched the workers deeply.
Kim is thought to have fathered at least four children by three women, in addition to liaisons with bevies of actresses, dancers and imported blondes. His official wife, Kim Young-sook, gave birth to a daughter in 1974, but neither she nor his principal mistress, Song Hie-rim, a former film actress and the mother of his eldest son, Kim Jong-Nam, figured in North Korea’s power matrix. Song Hie-Rim eventually tired of the dictator and fled to Moscow, where she died in 2001. Another mistress, a former dancing girl, Ko Yong-Hi, the mother of two further sons, was said to have suffered critical head injuries after crashing her Mercedes in Pyongyang the same year.
In April 2004 a devastating train blast at Ryongchon near the Chinese border took place hours after the Dear Leader had passed through on his return from an unofficial visit to Beijing, and focused attention on the murky question of the succession. His eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, was once believed to be the designated heir, but appeared to have fallen out of favour after being arrested in Tokyo in 2001 while travelling to Disneyland on a forged passport. In 2004 Kim Jong-il appeared to be grooming his second son, Kim Jong-chul, to succeed him, and in 2007 he was appointed deputy chief of a leadership division of the Workers’ Party.
But this morning Pyongyang described Kim Jong-un, one of his sons by Ko Yong-Hi, as the “great successor” and urged North Koreans to unite behind him.
In 2008 it was suggested by a Japanese historian that Kim Jong-il had died in 2003, and had, since that point, been replaced by four body doubles for public appearances.
Kim Jong-il, born February 16 1942, died December 17 2011