Weird yet ruthless megalomaniac dictator with a genius for terrorism


Behind the eccentric public persona was a cunning strategist and brutal political player, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

IN HIS trademark khaki jumpsuit and outsized sunglasses beneath an Elvis-style bouffant hairstyle, Kim Jong-il, the North Korea leader who has died aged 69, perfectly matched the classic image of a weird yet ruthless megalomaniac dictator.

Standing 158cm tall, and wearing 10cm platform shoes, the “Dear Leader” of the world’s only communist dynasty governed his desperately poor country with an iron fist following the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader” and founder of the secretive Stalinist enclave.

He succeeded in perpetuating the cult of personality built up around his father, and some of the official hagiography is truly wild. Known in official media as the “Lodestar of the 21st Century”, Kim Jong-il was credited with having a photographic memory. His political writings and philosophy were reported and broadcast every day and he wrote scores of books telling “all the truths of the world”.

He wrote six operas in two years and hit 11 holes-in-one in the first round of golf he ever played.

With a phobia about flying, he became famous for his specially fitted Japanese-built train, with its 21 carriages, lobster tanks and two armoured Mercedes cars. Kim Jong-il liked to quaff bottles of vintage Bordeaux wine, which he took to drinking after doctors made him give up Hennessy cognac.

But behind the eccentric public persona was a cunning strategist who prolonged the dynasty by installing his son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor.

He turned his country of 24 million into a nuclear power, despite the opposition of nearly everyone on the planet. He was head of the world’s fifth-largest military, the 1.1 million-member People’s Army, and was a brutal political player who forced the international community to sit up and take notice of him and his country.

The eldest son of Kim Il-sung by his first wife, Kim Jung Sook, he was born in Siberia on February 16th, 1942, where his father was with a guerrilla group escaping the Japanese.

In the official version of his life, he cultivated a quasi-religious dimension to the cult of personality around himself.

In this version, Kim Jong-il was born in a humble log cabin in a secret camp on Mount Paekdu, a sacred site for Koreans, as legend has it this was where the country was founded 4,000 years ago.

At Kim Jong-il’s nativity, a star rose above the mountain and shone brightly, a double rainbow appeared and spring broke out spontaneously.

There are a great number grotesque tales about Kim, many sourced to the South Korean media and intelligence agencies. But the official versions are so partisan, it has always been difficult to separate the myth from the reality.

There were stories that Kim had every grain of rice he ate personally inspected; that blonde Swedish prostitutes were flown in to Pyongyang to satisfy his lusts; and that he injected himself with the blood of virgins to stay young. It is certainly true that he had a sushi chef flown in from Japan and a pizza maker from Italy, at a time when millions of North Koreans were dying of hunger.

One of the more telling testimonies about Kim came from Russian envoy Konstantin Pulikovsky, who travelled with him on the famous train in 2001 on a trip to Moscow. Pulikovsky said roast donkey was flown fresh to the train every day and that the leader ate with silver chopsticks.

He said they drank champagne with a bevy of young women of the “utmost beauty and intelligence”.

Like Adolf Hitler, who supposedly loved Disney movies, Kim was fascinated by cinema and collected 20,000 foreign films. Daffy Duck and horror movies were among his favourites, as were James Bond films, though he was said to have been furious at the way North Korea was depicted as a basket-case evil state in Die Another Dayin 2002.

He produced several films himself, mostly ideologically driven historical epics, including the propaganda classic Sea of Blood.

His movie mania saw him kidnap the South Korean actress Choi En-hui and her film director boyfriend Shin Sang-ok, in Hong Kong in 1978.

They were held separately until 1983 and forced to produce seven films while in captivity, before they escaped on a visit to Vienna in 1986.

Defectors say Kim had a genius for terrorism and was personally behind many of his country’s most outrageous acts of violence. Western intelligence officials suspect he served his apprenticeship in terror while his father was still alive.

They believe he masterminded a 1983 terrorist bombing in Burma that killed 17 South Korean officials, and was also behind the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed all 115 people aboard.

Tragedy struck early in his life when his younger brother drowned and his mother died in childbirth in 1949. When the Korean War broke out, he was sent to China until 1953. He graduated from the university that bears his father’s name in 1964, and began his rise through the ruling Workers’ Party, by joining the politburo in 1968 and producing plays and films for the Department of Propaganda and Agitation.

Although he was designated successor in 1980, Kim did not immediately accede to the leadership after his father’s death and had to fight his way to the top as Kim Il-sung’s first choice as successor was reportedly the younger brother, Kim Yong-ju.

That was only part of the battle. Lacking his father’s charisma, he had to keep control of the country at a time when the economy was in a desperate state.

But he never lacked determination, and he eventually became head of the Korean Workers’ Party in 1997.