A Hermit's Debut

  • Share
  • Read Later
He died more than four years ago, but North Korea's longtime leader Kim Il Sung has hardly faded away. His embalmed body lies in a glass-covered coffin at the glittering Keumsusan Memorial Palace, his skin tweaked and powdered by Russian embalming experts. His portrait hangs in every North Korean home and office building, along with that of his son, Kim Jong Il. North Korean propaganda still portrays him as a god, and the country bristles with monuments and museums extolling his superhuman virtues. The late Kim has even signed some official documents lately--the country hasn't had a head of state since his death, so bureaucrats use his seal when new ambassadors present their credentials.The Great Leader should finally go into retirement by Sept. 9, when Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, is expected to assume the presidency. Since his father's death, Kim has used his authority as commander-in-chief of the army to run the country. He's also top dog in the ruling Workers' Party. But with the presidency under his belt, Kim will have the three titles once held by his late father, sealing his succession in the world's first communist monarchy. Kim's appointment will coincide with celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of North Korea's founding, another chance to signal that he now has the mandate of heaven. During the past four years, he has used his father's charisma, his shadow, says Choi Jin Wook, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. Kim Il Sung's ghost ruled the country. Now Kim Jong Il is trying to rule the country in his own name.The rest of the world has a stake in the outcome. North Korea's economy has collapsed, and famine has killed as many as 2 million people since 1995, according to recent estimates. With the presidency giving him a more public role, Kim could now be ready to push ahead with modest economic reforms. But the Dear Leader, who also likes to be called general in keeping with his post as head of the military, still has 1.1 million men under arms and ballistic missiles that can reach Tokyo. As conditions in the North worsen, the fear is Kim could be tempted to lash out to divert attention from troubles at home. Just last month came alarming reports that Pyongyang is digging a maze of underground tunnels that could be an attempt to revive its secret nuclear-bomb project. Analysts speculate Kim might try to use the excavations as a bargaining chip to extract more aid from the U.S. As North Korean and U.S. officials met for talks in New York last week, the mini-crisis underscored the need to better understand North Korea's quirky leader.Back in 1994, Kim was widely seen as a pale copy of his father, lacking his charisma and revolutionary credentials. That the younger Kim didn't immediately take over the presidency prompted speculation in the West about his ability to hold on to power at all. Tales of Kim's taste for fast horses, fine cognac and dancing girls abounded, adding to the image of a dissolute leader whose days were numbered. Four years later, that talk has faded.In fact, the portrait of Kim as a politically inept playboy with a goofy pompadour was always off the mark, according to one of the men who knows him best. Kim junior may not like pressing the flesh, but he has always been a skilled behind-the-scenes political operator, says Hwang Jang Yop, the most senior North Korean official to have defected to the South. In a rare interview, Hwang last week talked to TIME extensively about Kim, portraying him as a ruthless leader who learned early on how to manipulate people, starting with Kim senior.Short, pudgy and uncomfortable in a crowd, Kim Jong Il compensated by flattering and cajoling the right people. Hwang remembers a 1959 trip to Moscow, when he was personal secretary to Kim Il Sung. The son, then 17, came out of a hotel room with his father, hanging on his arm in a highly unusual public display of affection, then rushed to help his father put on his shoes. The performance looked overdone to Hwang: He had a way with people and was very skilled at winning people over, including his father.So skilled, in fact, that Kim was pretty much running things well before his father's death, according to Hwang. Selected as heir apparent at a secret Politburo meeting in 1974, Kim was effectively co-leader of the country by the mid-1980s. Using his position as head of the ruling party's personnel department, he weeded out the old man's supporters and replaced them with his own clique. He also tapped into the information pipeline to Kim Il Sung, siphoning off important reports for himself and leaving his father in the dark. Rival pretenders to the throne got shut out. Kim ordered party members to stay away from his half-brother Kim Pyong Il, who closely resembled their father. After that, even casual contact with Kim Pyong Il became risky, says Hwang, his teacher at the time. Incredibly, the elder Kim came to fear his son's ruthlessness, worrying about the fate of Kim Pyong Il and two other children by his second wife. Kim Il Sung was very aware of Kim Jong Il's ability to get rid of his half-siblings, says Hwang. He tried to be very nice to him in the hope that he would spare their lives after he died.Hwang got a taste of the younger Kim's cruelty after he fled North Korea in February 1997. Defectors from the North know that families left behind are headed for the gulag. Hwang's escape was a bigger embarrassment than most, akin to Goebbels walking out on Hitler: he had been a confidant of both Kims and the regime's chief ideologue. South Korean intelligence officials have told Hwang that 2,000 people were either dismissed from their jobs or sent to concentration camps after he left, including his wife and son.The Dear Leader knows he needs more than an iron fist to hold on to power. He has poured money into pumping up his father's already grandiose image--much of his own legitimacy will continue to flow from his ties to his illustrious dad. Kim has stepped up spending on monuments and museums to keep the family name in lights. No expense was spared for Kim Il Sung's mausoleum, which sports Italian marble floors and massive copper doors. Dissatisfied, Kim constructed in front of the building Pyongyang's largest park, at a cost of $90 million, says Hwang. That, the defector notes, would buy a lot of corn for North Korea's starving masses.Kim is also spending heavily to maintain his lavish lifestyle, according to Choi Sung Chul, secretary-general of the private Center for the Advancement of North Korean Human Rights in Seoul. Pyongyang's paramount leader imports horses, health food and Mercedes Benz S-600s, using sales of gold ingots to top up a personal slush fund, says Choi. For his birthday celebrations in February, North Korea bought 5,000 kg of fruit and seafood from Thailand, including 20 turtles. Kim is clearly not your Average Joe. But many of the stories about his eccentricities and decadent life-style are exaggerated, possibly circulated by South Korean intelligence, independent analysts say. They find no evidence to doubt that Kim is in charge of the country and that his leadership is largely unchallenged. A lot of people bought into the imminent collapse theory, says Gordon Flake, a scholar at the Atlantic Council of the United States, a private think tank. But he doesn't appear to be wacko, he is making policy decisions.The larger question now is whether Kim can really be his own man and start to pull his country out of the hole it's in. Before he died, Kim's father had begun to look for ways to resuscitate the North's decrepit economy. Kim Jong Il has tolerated the roadside markets that have sprung up around the country and backed modest reforms, such as increased incentives for farmers. He could move further down that road, portraying himself as a reformer building on his father's legacy, analysts say. Such moves might have the old man turning over in his glass coffin, but the rest of the world would certainly breathe a little easier.With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul