International Man of Mystery: Kim Jong Il's Russian Roots and Travels

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Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during their meeting in Vladivostok, August 23, 2002.

During the handful of visits that Kim Jong Il made to Russia throughout his life, he never once stopped by his birthplace, the dirt-road village of Vyatskoye in the Russian Far East. Frozen for much of the year and reduced now to a population of mostly geriatric farmers, the village lies a short train ride from Russia's border with North Korea, the hermit state Kim ruled for 17 years until his death this Saturday, Dec. 17. According to Soviet records, Kim was born there as Yury Irsenovich Kim, the son of a rank and file officer of the Red Army, Kim Il-Sung, whom Stalin later nominated to lead North Korea.

"When we were alone together, of course we talked about the place of his birth," says Konstantin Pulikovsky, the Kremlin's former envoy to the Far East, who would escort Kim during the visits he made to Russia on his armored train. "I told him a bit about it. I told him that his father's house is preserved and that many of the villagers remember him. He listened carefully and never denied a thing. But he asked me never to publicize it, and he never asked to go there," Pulikovsky tells TIME.

Publicizing Kim's beginnings, especially with a visit from the North Korean tyrant himself, would risk shattering the lie that the Kim family has been telling its subjects for decades. As the official legend has it, Kim was born atop a sacred mountain in Japanese-occupied North Korea, under a double rainbow that rose to greet the infant Kim and a new star that began shining in the sky. "This was all hogwash, of course," says Pulikovsky. "It was meant for internal consumption, and we respected that."

The real story of Kim's birth, however, seemed to be at the root of the personal and political connection he always felt toward Russia, one of the few allies that North Korea kept through its decades of isolation. Kim's last foreign visit, which he made on his armored train this August, just a few months before his death, was to Siberia, where he met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. It was seen as Kim's latest effort to balance against China's influence by nuzzling up to Moscow, and at the time, Kim was also busy grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. Many Russian officials expected Kim to bring his heir along to help ensure that the bond between the two countries would not be broken after Kim's death.

But he did not, and the future of that relationship, like so much of North Korea's future, is now up in the air. Pulikovsky, who formed a closer friendship with Kim than any other Russian official in modern times ("We are both Aquarius, so we would always call to say happy birthday and try to meet up."), only met Kim's youngest son once, during a holiday he took with his family to Pyongyang a few years ago. The older Kim introduced him as his heir, Pulikovsky recalls, "But the boy didn't say a word."

Kim Jong Un's personality, and even his exact birth date, remains a mystery, while Korea watchers have harped on his reported love of American basketball to suggest that he might take a softer line than his father in relations with the West. But this is all guesswork so far, and experts in Moscow are convinced that the younger Kim will stick to Pyongyang's traditional older brothers, Russia and China. "North Korea simply has nowhere else to turn," says Alexander Lukin, the head of the East Asia department at the Russian Foreign Ministry's institute of diplomacy. "Economically it is totally dependent on China, because it doesn't really produce anything of its own," Lukin says. "And in the last years of his life, Kim Jong-Il did his best to cozy up to Russia more and more, mainly to show that his dependence on the Chinese is not so one-sided."

That is the double-game that North Korea will likely continue to play, because it is practically the only one the Kim family knows. Russia, for its part, seems ready to keep playing along. When news of Kim's death broke on Monday, the Kremlin sent its condolences to his heir, and on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the North Korean embassy in Moscow to pay his respects. (Tellingly, Russia extended no such gesture to the Czech Republic after that country's former president, Vaclav Havel, died on Sunday. In the late 1980s, Havel led Czechoslovakia's peaceful revolution against Soviet rule. His death did not warrant so much as a word on the Kremlin website.)

But it is far from clear what Russia has to gain from its doting relations with North Korea, which still owes Russia $11 billion in debt from the Soviet era. "In terms of trade, I know they import our celluloid visors to put on their military caps, which tells you something about their industrial relevance," says Georgy Kunadze, Russia's former ambassador to South Korea. "But the fact that we have a paranoid regime on our borders should not make us temper our assessment of North Korea," adds Kunadze, who led a Kremlin mission in 1993 to re-establish relations with Pyongyang after the fall of the Soviet Union. "We need to remember that North Korea has never made good on its agreements with Russia, has never consulted us before jumping into one of its adventures," including its testing of nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009, or its decision to shell a South Korean island last year.

So for Russia, North Korea remains almost as much of a nuisance as it is for the West, and in some ways an even more dangerous one, because a nuclear accident in North Korea would inevitably spill radiation onto Russian territory. Yet Moscow shows no sign of toughening its stance. It has long supported United Nations sanctions against North Korea's nuclear program, but has also gone out of its way to make the regime feel loved. In August, when Medvedev flew to Siberia to meet with Kim Jong Il, he again pledged to build a gas pipeline and a railroad to North Korea. The state news agency KCNA described their meeting as "overflowing with friendship." This allowed Pyongyang to send a familiar message to both China and the West: if you cross us, we still have a powerful ally in Moscow. As Pulikovsky recalls, this has long been Kim's favorite diplomatic trick.

Soon after U.S. President George W. Bush branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" in 2002, Kim travelled to Russia to meet with then President Vladimir Putin, and he asked Pulikovsky to do him a peculiar favor. "He told me, 'Konstantin, when the official meeting [with Putin] is over, I want to sit down with him in private for ten minutes, with no one in the room, not even interpreters. I need to tell him something." That evening, the private meeting was arranged, and as Pulikovsky escorted Kim back toward the border afterward, his curiosity got to him. "I asked him, 'Comrade Kim, if it's no secret, why did you need these ten minutes?'" Pulikovsky says. "And he smiled at me and said, 'What's the difference? The point is for Bush to wonder what we were talking about.' For me that was classic Kim. He always found some way to get snagged in your thoughts, to make himself into a mystery."