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North Korean leader dies

Kim, 69, defied and baffled world with his nuclear aims, bizarre actions

December 19, 2011|Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna

Kim's early life was marked by tragedy and loneliness. When he was 5, his younger brother drowned in a pond. His mother died two years later. After his father remarried, he had a rocky relationship with his stepmother and his younger stepbrothers. Although the first born, he did not take for granted his eventual succession and worked hard to ingratiate himself with his powerful father.

Kim stayed close to his father's side, following him to official functions, even helping him put on his shoes, according to Hwang Jang-yop, a top North Korean academic and Kim family advisor who defected to South Korea.

"He was jealous and cunning," Hwang wrote in a memoir. "I could see that he craved power."

In 1964, Kim graduated with a major in political economy from North Korea's top school, predictably called Kim Il Sung University, and went to work in the propaganda section of the ruling Korean Workers' Party. Much of his work involved creating the hagiography that would elevate his father and by extension himself to the status of demigods.

He borrowed heavily from Christian imagery (nobody was any the wiser since the Bible was banned in North Korea, along with other religious literature) to create the myth of a holy family destined to rule. He was credited with designing the little red badge bearing a portrait of his father that North Koreans to this day are required to wear on their lapels.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 20, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Kim Jong Il: An article in the Dec. 19 Section A about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il gave conflicting details about his age. He was reported as being 69, his age according to the government. Also, his birth date was reported as Feb. 16, 1941, which would have made him 70. Although that is believed to be when he was born, government propaganda says it was a year later.

Kim eventually became director of the party's bureau of agitation and propaganda. The position gave him an excuse to get involved with one of his great passions: cinema. He expanded North Korea's film studios and wrote a book, or at least had one published under his name. In that 1973 tome, "On the Art of Cinema," he espoused the theory that "revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution."

Kim's obsession with cinema led to a bizarre episode in 1978 in which he ordered the kidnapping of a famous South Korean actress and her husband, a film director, to improve North Korea's film studios. The couple, Choi Eun Hee and Shin Sang Ok, made films for Kim for eight years and won his trust enough to be sent to Europe for a film festival, where they escaped and returned to South Korea.

The pair had covert tape recordings of their conversations with Kim and later wrote a memoir containing one of the few firsthand accounts of his personality. They described a man who could be alternately imperious and self-deprecating, once quipping to Choi about his height, "Small as a midget's turd, aren't I?"

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, tales of Kim's eccentricities spread throughout the world. Defectors told of wild drinking parties and naked dancers. Some of the stories were hyped by South Korea's fiercely anti-communist propaganda machine, but many were corroborated.

Kim imported $650,000 worth of Hennessy's finest cognac in a single year. His appetite for women and drink was exceeded by a love for the finest foods. He hired for his private kitchens a sushi chef from Tokyo and a pizza chef from Italy, both of whom wrote accounts of their experiences.

At the time, North Korea was in the midst of a famine that would eventually kill as many as 2 million people, up to 10% of the population, and leave many of them permanently stunted.

Homeless, starving children became a common sight at North Korean train stations. Kim nonetheless sent couriers on shopping excursions to buy rice cakes in Tokyo, mangoes in Thailand, cheese in France.

In later life, he gave up heavy drinking on the advice of his doctors, switching from cognac to red wine, but his epicurean tastes persisted. On a train trip through Russia in 2001, live lobsters and French wine were flown in to stops along the route, according to a memoir by a Russian official who made the trip.

Kim apparently saw no contradiction between the hardships of ordinary North Koreans and his own indulgences. While regular citizens could be sent to prison camps for watching South Korean or U.S. films, Kim maintained a personal library containing about 20,000 movies. Visiting delegations knew the most desired gifts to bring the leader were classic American films. During a 1994 trip, former President Carter introduced Kim to "The Godfather" and "Gone With the Wind."

Jerrold M. Post, a former psychological profiler for the CIA, diagnosed Kim as having malignant narcissism, a personality disorder characterized by "extreme grandiosity and self-absorption."

"There is no capacity to empathize with others," Post wrote in a study of Kim. "There is no constraint of conscience.... Kim's only loyalty is to himself and his own survival."

By the 1980s, Kim had become increasingly involved in intelligence and military matters, including, some say, terrorist attacks. South Korean intelligence officials believe he orchestrated a 1983 bombing in Yangon, Myanmar, that killed 17 visiting South Korean officials, as well as the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air passenger jet.

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