One of the tougher reviews for the new James Bond movie, "Die Another Day," came from an official-sounding organization, located in Pyongyang, North Korea, called the "Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland." The film, the villain of which is a North Korean arms dealer who develops a doomsday weapon to annihilate the West, is a "dirty and cursed burlesque aimed to slander and insult the Korean nation," railed the Secretariat. It is "a premeditated act of mocking" that proves the United States is "the headquarters that spreads abnormality, degeneration, violence and fin de siecle corrupt sex culture." Since not much emanates from North Korea without the say-so of Kim Jong Il, the pudgy, oddball strongman of Pyongyang, it's a good bet that the Secretariat was expressing the views, if not the actual words, of the "Great Leader," as Kim is known to his people.
Kim Jong Il is a movie fan. He once said that if he hadn't become his country's ruler, he might have become a film critic or producer. He is the author of a book entitled "On the Art of the Cinema," and is said to have a library of some 20,000 videos. (His favorites, in addition to James Bond, include the gory "Friday the 13th" teen-slasher flicks, any movie with Elizabeth Taylor, and Daffy Duck cartoons.) Kim loves spectacles--not just watching them, but staging them and starring in them. To entertain Bill Clinton's secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, he assembled more than 100,000 acrobats, dancers and singers to perform synchronized musical numbers with catchy titles like "The Leader Will Always Be With Us" and "My Country Under the Sunshine of the Party." Since Kim is an absolute ruler, he can put on any show and act in any role he wants. A well-rounded 5 feet 3, he cuts a slightly ridiculous figure dressed in a Mao suit, wearing high-heeled shoes and sporting a pouffy bouffant hairdo. But to his subordinates, he is simply "Great General."
It is all a grotesque charade. His fantasyland is a charnel house. While he lives like a brandy-swilling 18th-century French nobleman, more than 2 million people have died of starvation in North Korea over the last decade. Political prisoners are beaten or left to die in Soviet-style gulags. Kim himself is the last Stalinist, a weird, vicious remnant of communist oppression that has collapsed everywhere else on the planet. Kim Jong Il's North Korean horror movie would all be a remote tragedy to the out-side world, except that Kim's props now include weapons of mass destruction--chemical and biological and, soon if not already, nuclear weapons. Kim is threatening to use them against his neighbors and the United States, or to sell them to terrorists who would love nothing better than to contaminate or incinerate Times Square or the White House.
Is he bluffing? Is it all an elaborate fright show, or might he really try to kill a few thousand--or a few million--people in a truly spectacular fireworks display? Can he be contained? Reasoned with? Negotiated with? Trusted in any way? Or must he be banished, exiled, destroyed?
The fact is, no one really knows. Hidden away in his Hermit Kingdom, he is feared and reviled by opinion makers and world leaders and "loathed" by President George W. Bush. But he is not very well understood. One has to piece together occasional sightings and impressions from the few emissaries who have been granted an audience, or sift through the bitter memories of defectors who have escaped his clutches. The portrait that emerges is disturbing. Kim Jong Il is strange, all right, but not so flaky that he can't function. He may not have the ability to feed his people, but he can surely kill them, along with many people in many other countries. He seems mostly interested in his own survival, and he must have been cunning to survive this long (he is believed to have turned 60 a year or two ago). But his desperation and megalomania could lead to massively fatal miscalculations.
Kim is "slippery," "dangerous," but "not delusional," says former secretary Albright, the only high-ranking U.S. official to ever spend time with him. Seeking to "engage" the North Korean dictator, she traveled to Pyongyang in October 2000 and spent a dozen hours in "dialogue." "He's not a nut," Albright tells NEWSWEEK. "He's isolated but not uninformed." Kim made a point of showing Albright his computer, which he uses to cruise the Internet (he also closely monitors CNN, mostly to find out what is being said about him around the world). Kim eagerly chatted with Albright about the year's potential Oscar nominees from Hollywood and Michael Jordan's comeback in professional basketball, in between delivering somewhat loopy lectures on economic reform. "It's hard to tell what he wants," says Albright. "He did talk about economic change and following the Swedish model, which makes no sense at all."
As they drove through Pyongyang, Albright noticed that the streets were virtually empty. Everything was gray: the weather, the buildings, the clothing of the occasional passerby on a bicycle. But when they entered the stadium, where Kim had orchestrated a celebration, Albright was overwhelmed by the color and pageantry of thousands of brightly attired Kim worshipers performing in perfect unison. Flashcards held by the multitude re-created North Korea's history, as imagined by Kim. There were displays on the proper growing of potatoes by happy farmers and the mystical birth of the Great Leader. The most impressive card show displayed a rocket rising from a launchpad--a re-creation of the launching of a Taepodong missile over Japan in 1998, a surprise show of North Korean technological know-how that deeply shook Japan and the West. The missile launch was "the first and last," Kim promised to Albright ("He said it twice," she recalls, "meaning that they wouldn't shoot off another"). "I took it all with a bucket of salt," Albright insists now, though at the time she was criticized for applauding Kim's extravaganza a little too enthusiastically.
Kim has, in effect, been putting on a show all his life, trying to win attention and respect any way he can. After his mother died when he was 7 years old, his father, the dictator Kim Il Sung, "treated him like a dog," says Ambassador James Lilley, a former CIA station chief in Beijing and ambassador to South Korea familiar with defectors' reports. The elder Kim was a tough fighter, a hero of the resistance against the Japanese in World War II. Young Kim, by contrast, used make-believe to get ahead. He won his father's grudging approval by staging revolutionary musicals, with titles like "Sea of Blood" and "Flower Girl." Early eyewitness accounts portray the younger Kim as painfully insecure and erratic, with darting eyes and halting speech. But the dictator's son was a survivor, cunning enough to elbow aside rivals and succeed his father when he died in 1994. Kim referred to his stepmother and stepbrothers as "tree branches," and said that in order for a tree to grow solid and strong, its branches must be cut off. As the heir apparent, Kim was known as Dear Leader; when his father died, he assumed the title Great Leader.
Kim set about creating his own mythology as a demigod even before he succeeded his father. Korean schoolchildren were taught that he was born on a sacred mountain, his birth heralded by double rainbows and strangely singing birds. (He was actually born in a hovel in Russia, outside Vladivostok.) Kim runs North Korea like a cult. Preaching his father's dogma, Juche, or self-reliance, he has played on his country's traditional hatred of foreigners and Confucian deference to authority. Though thousands have tried to flee to China or South Korea rather than starve, many North Koreans cling to Kim's utopian promises, expectantly awaiting bountiful harvests that never come. Uneducated and wretchedly poor, they have been brainwashed by decades of pseudo-Marxist-Leninist agitprop. Young Army recruits have been taught that if they are captured, American soldiers will suck blood from their necks.
Kim claims he is so busy working for his people that he hardly sleeps, but his most prominent pastime is the pursuit of pleasure. The Great Leader's decadence was recently on vivid display for a Russian emissary, Konstantin Pulikovsky. In the summer of 2001, Pulikovsky spent 24 days traveling across Russia on a train with the North Korean leader, who is afraid to fly. (The special armored train had been a gift from Stalin to Kim's father, who was installed by Moscow as a Soviet puppet in 1945.) The younger Kim brought along a pair of bulletproof Mercedeses loaded onto a boxcar. Pulikovsky and Kim whiled away the hours talking about the high percentage of beautiful Russian girls in Paris nightclubs, a subject Kim somehow seemed to know a great deal about. Female employees on Kim's train were so beautiful and sang with such "gorgeous voices" that Pulikovsky believed them to be professional actresses along for the ride.
These indulgences were typical, if earlier accounts from defectors and the occasional Western visitor are to be believed. In 1998, a Mercedes-Benz representative was taken aback when Kim ordered 200 Class S Mercedeses at $100,000 apiece; the $20 million price tag was one fifth of the aid promised to North Korea that year by the United Nations. An avid womanizer, Kim has been married at least four times, once to a dancer, and is said to favor leggy Scandinavian blondes. As a young man, he created "pleasure teams" to service him and his father. One defector described a party at which women band members gyrated in tank tops and microminis while the guests cheered them on with toasts of a fiery rice liquor called Eternal Youth. A visitor to Kim's seven-story pleasure palace in Pyongyang (complete with karaoke machine) watched him riding about his pool on a raft propelled by an automatic wave maker, as a female doctor and a pretty nurse swam alongside.
On the train journey across Russia in 2001, Kim dined on lobster--with silver chopsticks--and fine wines flown in from Paris. "He prefers Bordeaux and Burgundy," reported Pulikovsky in his published account of the trip, which caused a minor diplomatic flap for its indiscretions. Kim has actually cut back on his drinking to about a half bottle of red wine a night. For many years the then Dear Leader favored Hennes-sy VSOP cognac, but in 1992 he switched to Hennessy Paradis, at $630 a bottle. In 1994 Hennessy confirmed that Kim was its single biggest buyer of cognac for two years running. When, at the pleading of his doctors, Kim quit smoking (three packs of Dunhills a day), every senior officer in the North Korean Army was required to quit smoking with him.
In his private railway car, meals sometimes ran to 20 courses. Kim the gourmand is also fond of the American teenage staple, pizza. In 1999 he imported pizza ovens and two Milanese chefs to teach the North Koreans how to make pizza. One of the chefs, Ermanno Furlanis, later reported (in an article entitled "I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il") that he endured a "brainwashing session" to learn to eliminate capers and anchovies after the Pyongyang higher-ups deemed one of the lamb dishes to be too salty.
Kim is hardly oblivious to the image he portrays. He told Pulikovsky that he kept close tabs on his headlines. "Throughout the entire world, I'm the object of criticism," Kim told the Russian diplomat. "But I see it this way: if I'm being talked about, then I'm on the right track."
Kim may have become a believer in his own myth. He will never change, according to the highest-level defector to the West, his former tutor, Hwang Jang Yop. The strongman is too rooted in his own twisted ideology, Hwang has told American intelligence debriefers. On the other hand, the current South Korean government, as well as some American experts at the State Department, believe that Kim can be lured into making economic reforms and cooperating with the South. He has attempted several experiments with capitalism in recent years, but they have all been halfhearted and botched. Ambassador Lilley, for one, is doubtful that Kim will ever truly embrace free-market initiatives because any freedoms would open a political Pandora's box. "He can't accept real economic reform. It'll bring down his regime," says Lilley.
Without reform, North Korea is slowly collapsing and becoming a failed state. Famine could claim hundreds of thousands of lives this winter. In darkened cities, schoolchildren sometimes read by the only illumination available--the spotlights playing on statues of the Great Leader in the town square. Kim relies heavily on China for economic aid, but he is worried that China may turn on him. He "knows the Chinese are getting ready to sell him out as a loser," says Lilley.
Kim has little to hold on to besides his weapons of mass destruction. He surely has large stocks of chemical and biological weapons and may have a couple of crude nuclear devices. Now that he has kicked U.N. arms inspectors out of the Yongbyon nuclear-reactor complex, the CIA estimates that he can probably extract enough weapons-grade plutonium to build a half-dozen bombs within six months. Potentially, they can be used to blackmail the world into providing food and fuel. Few experts believe that if Kim builds nuclear weapons, he will use them against South Korea, Japan or the United States. But he might sell them to terrorists. Kim already makes most of his foreign exchange by selling missile technology to countries like Syria and Pakistan. Why not sell a nuke to Al Qaeda? If he can't already, he may soon be able to put a nuclear device on a plane or in the hold of a ship and send it to the Middle East (or Los Angeles Harbor).
Kim has shown a willingness to support terror in the past. He is credited with ordering the 1983 bombing of a South Korean delegation in Burma and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airplane over the Andaman Sea, killing 115. Kim's secret agents have kidnapped at least a hundred Japanese and South Koreans over the years, including, to indulge Kim's cinema fancy, a prominent South Korean movie director.
The best hope for avoiding a calamitous showdown with Kim may be the strongman's own desire to survive. He has quietly salted away more than $4 billion in Swiss bank accounts, according to Chuck Downs, a Korea expert and Defense Department official in the Clinton administration. For years, Kim has been using forced labor to mine gold from a mountain in Korea; the gold is deposited directly into his Swiss accounts. Kim maintains a villa in Geneva (where his son was educated) as well as five other villas in Europe, one in Russia and one in China. The world can only hope that one of them becomes his retirement home.