North Korean Leader Remains Mysterious Despite Widely Recognizable Face

One story about Kim Jong Il, the much-caricatured dictator of North Korea, goes like this:

He is driving through the streets of his capital, Pyongyang, one day and notices a shivering, female traffic officer. Struck in part, perhaps, by her beauty, Kim sets off immediately to personally design and issue new, warmer uniforms.

The point to be taken from this story is not the example it makes of his tendency to micromanage the affairs of his country, his twisted sense of empathy, or his penchant for beautiful women.

CountryWatch: North Korea

The point is that Kim's life is told in anecdotes, nearly impossible to substantiate, stories that may speak of his excesses, his appetite, his cruelty, his desire to control, or his peculiarities.

"The problems separating myth from reality are quite profound," said Dr. Jerrold Post, a former CIA analyst and as much a Kim Jong Il expert as exists. Post, now director of George Washington University's political psychology program, included the traffic-cop anecdote in a profile he wrote on the North Korean leader.

The matching pants and jackets in tan and gray, the big sunglasses, the puffed-up hairdo, the platform shoes, and of course the maniacal personality. Roughly, they make up the composite many Americans and others have of Kim. That and whatever they remember from the movie, "Team America: World Police," the puppet-animation political satire, which features a Kim Jong Il character singing about how lonely he is.

Seldom has someone the world knows so little about been so universally identifiable, his image so fixed and specific. Feared, ridiculed, hated, Kim, 64 or 65 depending on which report is believed, has been described as ruthless yet charming at times, articulate and a true wit. He has been described as narcissistic yet self-effacing, reclusive but adoring the company of a large entourage and habitually nocturnal.

He is thought to be a movie buff, possessing a collection of more than 15,000 movies, enjoying in particular action films like the James Bond movies, "Rambo" and the horror classic "Friday the 13th." He has denied this but acknowledged being a fan of NBA basketball.

Among the other tidbits of the man known to his countrymen as "Dear Leader:" He is known to have spoken in public only once. He has a taste for fine wines and Hennessy cognac, a weakness that costs him up to $800,000 a year. He has a fear of flying and travels by armored train. While traveling he rarely leaves his country except for journeys to China and Russia, during which he once had lobsters airlifted for dinner.

He owns yachts, limousines and thoroughbreds. For entertainment he employs a "joy brigade," beautiful young women recruited by virtue of their flawless posture and complexion to indulge Kim and his guests. Every grain of rice he eats is inspected for visual flaws. And it is cooked only in the traditional manner, over a wood fire, the fuel felled from the forests of North Korea's highest mountain. Although the leader of a starving nation, he enjoys imported caviar, shark's liver and sushi.

Most of what is known about Kim is gathered from defectors interviewed by South Korean intelligence officers, and the few Westerners who have had the chance to meet him. Very little information comes from direct observation, but from second-hand stories told by people with possible political biases.

And then, there is the South Korean actress and her film director husband, whom Kim kidnapped in 1978. The two spent eight years in North Korea as Kim's "guests," forced to help him build a film industry in his country.

According to a book the couple wrote about their captivity, Kim reportedly asked the actress Choe Un-hui upon their first meeting, "Well, Madame Choe, what do you think of my physique? Small as a midget's droppings, aren't I?"

His height has been reported to be 5-feet-2 or 5-feet-3, with the aid of heels. Partly because of Kim's short stature, Post said, "one can see that underneath his grandiose facade, he is a very insecure individual."

Another contributing factor, Post said, was Kim's having to succeed his father Kim Il-sung, a leader of god-like status.

Observers have concluded that Kim is not insane or unintelligent. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, one of the few Western dignitaries to meet Kim, described him as well-informed, conversant and hardly delusional. She brought him a gift of a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.

"I found him very much on top of his brief," she said at the time in various news reports, although she thought some of his ideas about the North Korean economy sounded illogical. He, if not his people, has free access to the Internet and media.

Post used the term "malignant narcissism" to describe Kim, characterized by paranoia and a lack of empathy and conscience.

His reputed paranoia may have been piqued with the invasion of Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein, the talk of regime change, and the mention of his country as part of President Bush's "Axis of Evil."

It is estimated that one-third of his country's financial resources go toward military spending. North Korea's million-man army is the world's fifth largest.

He took power in 1994 when his father died, though the title of president was retired out of respect for his father.

Officially Kim Jong Il holds several titles, Supreme Commander of the army and General Secretary of his party among them. According to interviews with defectors, the younger Kim is far more autocratic than his father, who sought the advice of his ministers.

His successor is thought to be one of his three sons, Kim Jong-chul. Married three times, Kim Jong Il also has one daughter.

At least two acts of terrorism have been linked to Kim, who is also thought to have funded his military aspirations by trading in illegal drugs. South Korea accused him in 1983 of a bombing in Burma that killed 17 visiting South Korean officials, among them four cabinet members. South Korea also accused him of the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air jetliner that killed all 115 aboard. A North Korean agent later confessed to the bombing saying it was ordered by Kim.

In keeping with his Oz-like aura, his voice has been broadcast only once, in 1992 during a military parade. He took the microphone and said, "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the People's Army!"

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