Inside the head of Kim Jong-il

A new book asks who is Kim Jong-il, what he wants and what to do about North Korea''s "Dear Leader".

Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader, by Michael Breen (Published by Wiley)

Known variously as the Dear Leader, Party Centre, Supreme Commander, Father of the People, Morning Star of Paekdu, Leader of Steel, Father of the Nation, Sun of the Twenty-First Century and Everlasting Sky - to name but a few - Kim Jong-il is something of an enigma to outside observers. This book, by journalist and former North Korea business consultant, Michael Breen seeks to make him less so.

North Korea's paramount leader, we learn, is a man who loves to party, drinks half a bottle of fine burgundy per day (having cut back on the hard stuff, such as cognac), and can be disarmingly charming one moment, make a joke at his own expense and have you executed the next. Above all, he sits atop the world's biggest - and most heavily armed - personality cult, which he fostered first for his father (Kim Il-sung) only to inherit himself.

While his people have spent much of the last 10 years starving, his rice comes from special farms in Mundok County, where each grain is individually examined. In a country short of basic fuels, his rice has to be cooked over a flame using rare firewood from Mount Paekdu.

In fact, Kim is somewhat obsessed with food, and is a gourmet who brings some of the world's finest European and Japanese chefs to his palaces. He has strong views on food too, and not just on how it should be served. During a 2001 train journey to Russia, the author writes: "Kim explained to his [Russian] host that the strong seasoning in kimchi provided a necessary substitute for an enzyme needed for digestion which only the Koreans, among homo sapiens, lack."

This is a man whose second greatest love after food (and possibly self-preservation), appears to be the movie industry. Kim allegedly has a library of 20,000 films, and by definition, most of those can't be North Korean. During his rise to power, he did in fact try to boost the local film industry, by taking a personal interest in scripts (as well as actresses). He even wrote the libretto to a cinematic opera called The Sea of Blood.

When such movies failed to reach the silver-screen heights he'd hoped for, he orchestrated the 1977 kidnapping of top South Korean director and actress, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee. Choi was kept in one of Kim's mansions, invited to parties, asked to critique local movies and made to wear traditional Korean female dress. Bizarrely, after eight years in North Korea, Kim apologized for kidnapping them, and let them travel to Europe where they escaped.

How does Kim, with an economy that is in tatters, afford to import the best of everything and enjoy one of the world's most opulent lifestyles? "The answer," writes Breen, "is that Kim has his own conglomerate. Yes. He's a capitalist pig."

The conglomerate has the name, Division 39 and is reckoned to have generated as much as $5 billion for him, with the funds kept safe in banks and operations in Switzerland, Macau and elsewhere. Among its legitimate businesses, it benefits from being North Korea's biggest exporter of pine mushrooms and ginseng; as well as being involved in seafood, and mining gold, silver, and magnesium. On the darker side, Division 39 is a successful international drug smuggler, arms dealer and counterfeiter.

Breen seeks to analyse Kim's psychology and notes he is a born survivor. Casting back to his childhood, he writes: "The story of his childhood remains unclear, but no doubt the death of his brother and mother by the age of seven would have had a profound effect. While there is no solid account of his relationship with his stepmother, we suspect the relations were strained."

Breen says Kim is not bloodthirsty in a Stalinist sense, but he has no aversion to execution either. "In one case, in the early 1970s, a party official rather flatteringly suggested that Kim Jong-il should officially be declared successor. Apparently, Kim Jong-il's response was to shoot him. The crime? Challenging Kim Il-sung. In other words, it was [his father] Kim Il-sung's place, and Kim Il-sung's only, to make such comments."

He also has a severe temper, and is prone to forget what he has said. "Instances of his forgetfulness have far-reaching consequences," writes Breen. "In 1996, Kim Jong-il was in the North Korean city of Wonsan when he noticed a group of boys aged around 10 years old in the street. He made some comment about their straggly hair. Aides over-interpreted this as an instruction and an order went out through the country that young boys' heads should be shaved. Two years later, in a discussion an official reminded him of his 'instruction'. He didn't remember having said it."

Breen's conclusion about Kim is that "as an individual he is neither insane nor evil. But he benefits from being at the top of a system which is both."

The book is full of anecdotes, insights and sources. All in all, for anyone investing in Korea, or interested in the region's prime security threat, this is worth a quick read. Indeed, if nothing else pick it up in a bookshop and flick to page 61 to read the section from Kim's biography about how the paramount leader helped the young girl oil her lathe.

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