Policy Area: Negotiating Style

Kim Jong-il Through the Looking Glass
Katy Oh and Ralph Hassig, 2003.

The Kim Dynasty

Kim Jong-il, the first son of North Korea's founder, President Kim Il-sung, was born in 1942 in a Russian military camp near Khabarovsk, where his father and a small band of guerillas were hiding from the Japanese troops who had chased them out of China. Kim's mother, Kim Jong-suk, did household chores for the guerillas. Kim had a younger brother, Shura, who died in a drowning accident at the age of five, and a younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, who would grow up to become one of Kim Jong-il's closest associates. Kim Il-song was escorted back to Korea by Russian troops a month after the Japanese surrendered, followed by Kim Jong-il and his mother two months later.

The story of Kim Jong-il's birth is presented quite differently to the North Korean people. According to the official story, Kim Jong-il was born in a secret military camp on Korea's historically sacred Paektu Mountain. Kim Il-sung, the third generation in a family of heroic Korean fighters, was said to be waging a successful battle to liberate Korea from the Japanese. By North Korean accounts, even when Kim Jong-il was a baby, the Korean partisans at the camp recognized that he was destined to be a great general, "like his father," which is why in the Kim cult legend, Kim, his father, and his mother are known as the "three generals of Mount Paektu." Their pictures are currently displayed on North Korea's "official web site at http://www.DPRKorea.com.

Kim's childhood was typical-for the son of a dictator. He was treated with great deference by one and all, and completely spoiled. After elementary and high school in Pyongyang, he enrolled in Kim Il-sung University, graduating with a degree in economics in 1964. He joined the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) Organization and Guidance Department, which was headed by Kim Il-sung's younger brother, Kim Yong-ju, who appeared to be in line to succeed Kim Il-sung.

In 1973, Kim's father married the attractive Kim Song-ae, his first wife having died giving birth to another child in 1949. With this second wife, President Kim had another son, Kim Jong-pil. In the early 1970s, Kim Il-sung decided to have his eldest son succeed him, even though the North Korean Dictionary of Political Terminology called hereditary succession "a reactionary custom of exploitative societies" (that definition was dropped in the dictionary's 1972 edition). Perhaps to make the succession more palatable to the North Korean public-not that they had any say in the matter-Kim Jong-il was for several years referred to in the press only as the "Party Center." True to his pseudonym, the young Kim immediately began to make his presence felt. Kim's uncle was soon removed from the political scene, as was Kim's younger (and more popular) brother, Kim Pyong-il. Once Kim Jong-il became head of the Organization and Guidance Department, he was well-placed to purge those who objected to his succession and to reward a new generation of supporters.

Kim Takes Charge

In the shadow of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung's personality cult, it was not apparent that the young Kim had become essentially the chief operating officer of North Korea by the 1980s. Testimony from North Korean defectors suggests that Kim played an active role in the management of party and government affairs from the time of his first party appointment, including (if we are to believe the North Korean press) having direct responsibility for the capture of the Pueblo in 1968 and the ax killings at Panmunjom in 1976. By 1990, he appears to have taken control of virtually all of North Korean affairs.

Kim's did not take his first government (as opposed to party) position until he was named supreme commander of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in 1992, despite having absolutely no military experience. The following year, he was named chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), a fairly nondescript organization at the time. During this period, it is not known how well Kim and his father got along, but at least in public the Kim dedicated his efforts to upholding his father's authority and teachings, thereby basking in the reflected glory of the Great Leader, whom the people adored.

Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in July 1994. For the next three years, Kim Jong-il rarely appeared in public, but behind the scenes he was consolidating his political position, taking special care to promote KPA generals who would be loyal to him. Kim came out of his self-imposed seclusion in 1997, when he had himself elected to his father's position as general secretary of the WPK. In 1998, Kim convened the Supreme People's Assembly, which had been dormant since his father's death, and had the delegates adopt a new constitution that retired the position of president (thereby extending his father's presidential tenure beyond his death). Kim was re-elected NDC chairman, which was proclaimed to be the top position in the republic. North Korea now had a truly military government, whose principal task was to implement Kim Jong-il's new songun or "military first" policy.

Personality and Lifestyle

Throughout his career, Kim Jong-il has avoided the limelight. While his father was alive, a popular explanation for Kim's secrecy was that he was acting as a proper Confucian-style obedient son. But since his father's death, Kim has continued to work behind the scenes, suggesting that his public shyness is better explained by concerns for his personal security (he always takes elaborate security precautions), embarrassment about appearing in public, or a particular pleasure in ruling from behind the scene. Kim Jong-il has never delivered a public speech, although in 1992 he did shout "Glory to the heroic Korean People's Army" from a reviewing stand at a military parade. His father, on the other hand, loved to speak to the people in his gravelly, booming voice, and appeared to take great pleasure in meeting his subjects during frequent "on-the-spot" guidance inspections. After the North Korean constitution was revised in 1998, the titular head of government became the chairman (also referred to as "president") of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, a position given to former foreign minister Kim Yong-nam, but Kim Jong-il hosts important foreign visitors, and in recent years he has traveled twice to China and twice to Russia.

By combining information from the few foreigners who have met him with the testimony of an even smaller number of high-level North Korean defectors, it is possible get a more accurate picture of Kim than is painted by North Korean propaganda, which depicts him as the world's most brilliant general and statesman, "the lodestar for sailing the 21st century" (to quote from a full-page advertisement that was purchased for Kim in the New York Times).

The personality traits that seem to describe Kim best are his independence, intelligence, boldness, self-centeredness, and impetuosity. Kim talks fast, usually in unfinished sentences. When he gets an idea, he wants it implemented immediately. For example, in designing the Potemkin village that is the capital, Pyongyang, Kim orders that buildings be erected when his artistic eye rests on an empty vista. After his 2002 visit to eastern Russia, where he was impressed with the architecture of a Greek Orthodox church, he ordered that a similar church be built in Pyongyang within the year, even though North Koreans are not permitted to celebrate any religion other than the Kim family cult.

Kim is fearful for his security, as any dictator might be. Reports suggest that when Baghdad was attacked in 2003, Kim retired to one of his underground bunkers near Mount Paektu for a couple of months. The most loyal and ferocious KPA soldiers are assigned to his special guard detail, and the entire North Korean people are supposed to be prepared to sacrifice their lives for Kim, as their ultimate social responsibility.

While Kim Jong-il acts like a powerful and confident leader, he may harbor feelings of insecurity. Physically, he is short and stout; at about five feet three inches tall, he is several inches shorter than his father. To add a few inches to his height, he combs his hair in a bouffant style and wears elevator shoes. His voice is high-pitched, and he has squinty eyes. In nearly all respects, he cuts a less impressive figure than his father, and may well be self-conscious about his appearance and determined to prove himself to the public and to his subordinates by acting aggressively.

Witnesses say that Kim is often uneasy among strangers. In his on-the-spot guidance to farms, factories and military bases, he rarely meets the people, instead making quick administrative visits that are not publicized until later-although the North Korean press has quoted Kim as saying that "As for my hobbies, I am fond of mixing with the people and soldiers." On the other hand, when he met ROK president Kim Dae-jung at the first-ever Korean summit meeting in June 2000, Kim Jong-il showed himself to be a gracious and witty host. He repeated this performance when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang that October.

Kim's lifestyle has received much attention in the foreign press. It would be naive to expect that the supreme ruler of even such a poor country as North Korea would lead a Spartan life. By all accounts (apart from cult propaganda, which describes him as eating rice balls and soup), Kim's lifestyle is lavish. The entire economy, such as it is at less than $20 billion GDP, is his to draw on. He has numerous villas scattered around the country. He enjoys the best imported food, including French wine and cognac. Domestically provided food is harvested from his own special farms. At least in his younger days, he amused himself with a "pleasure team" of comely Korean and foreign women, and even on his recent train trip to Russia he was accompanied by several very attractive Korean women.

As for hobbies, Kim is known to enjoy a good party, drinking with buddies, hunting, shooting, horseback riding, racing around in his cars on Pyongyang's virtually empty streets, watching foreign films (he is said to have a library of several thousand videos, all banned to the public), and in recent years, surfing the internet (another activity denied to the public). He has an artistic temperament, showing some talent in playing the piano and violin. His love of films is so great that in 1978 he had a South Korean film director and his movie-star wife kidnapped and brought to North Korea, where they were forced to make films for him until managing to escape while on a trip to Europe seven years later.

Kim's health has often been the subject of foreign speculation. Over the years he has been rumored to suffer from epilepsy, diabetes, a bad heart, liver trouble, and brain damage (from a car accident or fall from horseback). Yet visitors report that he appears to be in good health, although overweight.

The Essential Kim What is most important to know about Kim Jong-il is, first, how much support he receives from the people and the cadres; second, how informed he is of domestic and global events; and third, how rational a decision maker he is.

As to popular support, it appears that although Kim has never come close to gaining the respect and affection that his father enjoyed, the younger Kim has at least managed to establish himself with the people as the essential guardian of their safety in the face of foreign (read "US imperialist") pressure. North Korea's crushing economic problems are attributed by the press to the US-led embargo, and to the extent that domestic scapegoats are needed, Kim blames bureaucrats for failing to implement his policies faithfully, and for that matter, asks the North Korean people if they have devoted themselves unreservedly to socialism, which of course they have not.

Whereas a degree of popular support makes it easier for Kim to control 22 million hungry North Koreans, the support of the military is crucial for his very survival. The top generals (most of whom he has appointed) cannot be happy with the state of the economy, which has severely impaired military morale and readiness. But Kim lavishes gifts on his generals, and also spies on them with multiple surveillance systems. In any case, the generals would not know how to run the country without Kim. Our best guess is that in his symbiotic relationship with the military, Kim in the driver's seat, but always vulnerable to assassination from a rogue officer. To forestall such an incident, Kim has ordered that before he makes an on-the-spot inspection of a military base, all soldiers in the vicinity must be disarmed.

Foreigners who have met Kim say he is inquisitive and extremely well briefed. He is known to spend much time monitoring foreign television broadcasts and surfing the web. On his trans-Siberian train trip to Moscow in 2001, one of his train carriages was equipped not only with a large flat-panel screen to view films, but also a screen projecting an electronic map with his train's current position and information about the locality. In Pyongyang, Kim has set up an excellent reporting system to provide himself with multiple independent sources of information about the state of the republic.

Nevertheless, defectors claim that reports sent to Kim are often doctored to make conditions look more favorable for the departmental bureaucrats. Kim is nobody's fool, but there are probably many things he does not know about his society and economy. Most importantly, he may not appreciate the futility of trying to achieve economic success based on a socialist model. While he has admitted (in private, to the abducted film director and actress) that socialism has its flaws, he seems to think that these flaws can be overcome if the North Korean people are sufficiently indoctrinated with loyalty to his regime and faith in socialism. As for international events, although he has a wealth of information available to him from electronic sources, he has very limited first-hand experience with foreigners and foreign lands. The prism through which he views the world may be distorted by the movies he loves to watch and by the unique socialist ideology that has guided North Korean thinking for the last fifty years.

Finally, is Kim a rational thinker, able to arrive at reasonable conclusions from the information he receives? The foreign press routinely refer to him as crazy, but there is little evidence to confirm this view. Given that Kim desires to remain in power for a lifetime, his choices generally make sense. It would be a mistake to think that because North Korea has a failed economy and a depressed populace, Kim has made irrational decisions. His decisions are for his own benefit and the benefit of his top supporters. Totalitarian socialism may have weakened his country and impoverished his people, but it has kept him in control. Impulsive though he may be, Kim seems capable of carefully weighing costs and benefits, employing North Korea's limited resources to protect his regime from the indifference and hostility of foreign powers. If he succeeds in trading some or all of his nuclear program for financial aid and security guarantees from other governments, he may reign as long as his father.

As for the future of his regime, Kim is now 61 years old, apparently in good health, and in firm control of the country, but he needs a designated successor. According to the logic of the Kim cult, which absolutely deifies the Kim family, Kim must choose one of his sons to succeed him. The tradition of Confucianism, on which the Kim cult is based, would favor his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, born in 1971. Jong-nam, a larger and fatter version of Kim Jong-il, and the son of Kim's former mistress, the actress Song Hye-rim, spent much of his childhood and youth being educated in Switzerland and Russia. He is said to be extremely talented in the use of computers, but in 2001 he had the misfortune to be detained by immigration authorities while entering Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport. The passport issue caused his father to lose face, and might prove an inauspicious public debut for a future North Korean leader. In late 2002, the North Korean propaganda organs began to elevate to cult status Kim Jong-il's only known legal wife, Ko Yong-hi, perhaps signaling that her son, Kim Jong-chol, who is Kim Jong-il's second oldest and ten years younger than Jong-nam, may be chosen to continue the Kim dynasty into the next generation.

*The material in this section is largely based on chapter 4 in our book, North Korea through the Looking Glass (Brookings, 2000), and on our chapter "The New North Korea" in the Korea Briefing, 2000-2001 (M. E. Sharpe, 2002). Links to these and other sources may be found on our web site:

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