Policy Area: Negotiating Style

North Korea: The Movie
Jerrold Post, Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs and Director of the Political Psychology Program at the George Washington University, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2003. (Reprinted with permission.)

WASHINGTON -- Among the things we know about Kim Jong Il, the diminutive leader of North Korea, one fact is particularly intriguing: He is a serious fan of cinema. He is reported to have upward of 20,000 videos in his collection, and he watches them repeatedly. Kim's film obsession raises some questions: To what degree is his view of the West shaped by Hollywood? To what degree have the movies he loves influenced his actions? And finally, is he now writing, directing and starring in some grand epic he thinks of as "North Korea: the Movie"?

Like Saddam Hussein, Kim is said to be a huge fan of "The Godfather," which explains much about his leadership style. But in other ways too, he seems to be living his life and running his country more along Hollywood plot lines than traditional ways of living and governing.

Take the way Kim set out to build a North Korean film industry. In 1978, rather than sending emissaries to study filmmaking in other countries, he simply arranged for the kidnapping of Choi Eun Hee, his favorite South Korean actress, and her husband, a noted movie director. They were taken to North Korea and held for eight years, ostensibly to teach him how to make movies. When Kim, who is extremely self-conscious about his stature -- he is 5 feet, 3 inches tall and wears 4-inch lifts -- met Choi, he reportedly used a line worthy of a Peter Lorre character: "Well, Madame Choi, what do you think of my physique? Small as a midget's droppings, aren't I?"

Over the last three decades, first as a political personality profiler and psychiatrist for the CIA, and currently as director of the political psychology program at George Washington University, I have developed hundreds of political personality profiles of world leaders. The two where I found the greatest gap between myth and reality were with Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's first leader. Why? In part, because the myths were largely constructed by Kim Jong Il, with his love of cinematic sweep.

As director of the Propaganda and Agitation Bureau, Kim Jong Il was, at 30, responsible not only for creating the cult of personality that surrounded his father, "Great Leader," but also for creating his own persona as "Dear Leader," Kim Il Sung's chosen successor. No detail was too great or small to alter.

Consider, for example, the circumstances of Kim Jong Il's birth. In truth, Kim was born under difficult circumstances in 1942, on a guerrilla base in the Soviet Union near the border of China, where his parents were under the protection of the Soviet military. But in his official biography, the birth of Kim Jong Il is described in rather more heroic terms.

"The world history has not recorded such a son of guerrillas who was born between brilliant commanders of guerrillas in Mt. Paekdu, the sacred mountain of the nation. So Kim Jong Il's birth is said to be an unprecedented birth out of a remarkable family. Therefore ... Kim Jong Il's birth itself is great and he was born with the mission of savior."

But if Kim Jong Il has created a grand birth for himself, he has nevertheless found it difficult to fill the shoes he fashioned for his charismatic father. In contrast with his father, Kim Jong Il was not a guerrilla fighter, not a nation builder, not the creator of his nation's ideology.

Perhaps it is to avoid facing his own monumental failure of leadership that Kim has retreated into a cinema-style fantasy world. His country is starving -- some 2 million people have already died of hunger. Yet at the same time Kim calls on his people to sacrifice in pursuit of the twin goals of reunification and juche (self-reliance), he denies himself nothing, living in a seven-story Pyongyang pleasure palace. He recruits comely teenage virgins with fair complexions each July for "joy brigades" to provide "relaxation" for his senior officers.

In addition to his penchant for Western movies and beautiful women, the eccentric and self-indulgent Kim has a weakness for French cognac. Hennessy, the maker of Paradis cognac, which sells for a reported $630 a bottle, confirmed in 1994 that Kim was then the biggest buyer of the cognac, spending $650,000 to $800,000 annually on the liquor since 1992. The average North Korean makes about $1,000 a year.

It may be that Kim doesn't fully grasp the dire conditions of his people. When he goes out for "surprise" inspections of villages, there is generally enough advance notice that the "set" can be "dressed," with food, clothing and other necessities to present an upbeat picture.

According to Kim, his father was quite concerned about his people. "Only once have I disobeyed President Kim Il Sung," he once wrote. "The President said, 'Can you shave off some defense spending and divert it for the people's livelihoods?' I responded, 'I am afraid not. Given the military pressure from the U.S., the Korean people must bear the hardship a little longer.' How much pain I felt at my failure to live up to the expectations of the President who is concerned about raising the living standards of the people!"

Kim Jong Il has shown a remarkable indifference to his people's suffering. Early in the famine, Kim cut off nearly all food supplies to the four eastern provinces, also denying them access to international aid. From 1997 to 1999, on Kim's orders, several hundred thousand people displaced by the famine were herded into camps, where many died of hunger and exposure. Moreover, witnesses say, Kim has ordered the systematic killing of babies born in North Korea's camps for political prisoners.

The European press has derided President Bush for having a "cowboy" mentality. But what about Kim Jong Il, who seems to think he's starring in "Gunfight at the OK Corral"? Only instead of six-guns, Kim is aiming nuclear warheads. Kim's technique for extracting money from his neighbors and the West seems straight out of the classic Peter Sellers' movie, "The Mouse That Roared." This mouse, however, has a fighting force of 1.2 million troops, 70% of whom are massed at the border. He also has a nuke or two, with the ability to rapidly expand his nuclear arsenal.

Today's alarming situation raises a final question: Does Kim understand that this is real life? Or is he some Norma Desmond-style character, wandering the corridors of his palace muttering to himself, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Return to Top

nautilus home page nautilus home page nautilus DPRK Briefing book page