North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Gets It From His Father, a Mean, Chubby Drunk

Portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il
A soldier walks under portraits of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung, left, and leader Kim Jong-un at Pyongyang's main square. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Welcome the Dear Leader” on July 18, 1994 after Kim Il Sung, then dictator of North Korea, died. In light of recent news involving North Korea and threats against the U.S., Newsweek is republishing the story.

KIM JONG IL IS LECHEROUS AND hard-drinking, a spoiled brat at 52. He is also a devoted son, a good friend to the army and a shrewd politician. He is mentally unstable and rarely appears in public. He is a ruthless sponsor of terrorism, once ordering a South Korean airliner to be blown out of the sky. He knows little about the outside world and apparently has never met an American. But he is a rabid fan of Hollywood movies, with a personal library of 20,000 films. One of his favorites is Friday, the 13th. The new leader of North Korea may be all of the above or only some of it. Kim Jong Il is even more of a mystery than his late father, Kim Il Sung. His biography has been thoroughly worked over by mythmakers, both friend and foe. But behind all the smoke and mirrors, the short, chubby, younger Kim appears to be a wily manipulator with a determined grip on power, at least for now.

He was born near Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East, where the elder Kim had taken refuge from the Japanese occupiers of his country. But after the "Great Leader" anointed him as his successor, the younger Kim's history was rewritten. According to his effusive personality cult, the "Dear Leader" was actually born on Mount Paekdu, a sacred site in Korean lore. As his father tried to create the world's first communist dynasty, Kim Jong Il ostensibly took control over the armed forces and foreign policy (though it was his father who dealt with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter a few weeks ago). He was thought to be in charge of North Korea's nuclear program and its bomb-building potential. And he was widely blamed for masterminding a terrorist bombing in Burma that decimated the visiting South Korean cabinet in 1983 and another that destroyed a South Korean airliner in 1987, killing 115 people.

His enemies also claim that Kim Junior is surrounded by pleasure-loving sycophants, who ply him with Hennessey cognac and Dunhill cigarettes. They say his is a voracious womanizer, served by squads of important hookers called "Pleasure Teams." The Dear Leader's passion for movies is more evenhandedly documented. A South Korean producer says Kim had him kidnapped in 1978 and held him for eight years in an effort to set up his own studio (eventually the producer escaped). More recently, Kim spent huge sums of money to film a North Korean Godzilla.

"All reports that he is a wild party maniac are rubbish," insists Peter Hayes, an Australian expert on North Korea whose most recent visit to Pyongyang was last year. Maybe so, but it is clear that the younger Kim lacks his father's charisma and personal authority; despite all the propaganda on his behalf, he is not venerated as the old man was. His father fought against both the Japanese and the Americans; he created a system based on perpetual revolution, demanding endless sacrifices from North Koreans. Such systems are sustained by both fear and faith. For starters, Kim Jong Il can summon up the fear, but he still has to demonstrate that he can inspire the faith.