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Sustaining N. Korea's cult of Kim

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2003


For 30 years, Kim Jong Il has scripted, directed, and produced an international play called "North Korea." Its main star: himself.

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In 1974, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's revolutionary father figure designated his son, Kim Jr., as successor. From the start, the often wild and pampered Kim, given to artistic pretentions, began a power grab alternately brilliant and wicked, say people who knew both men.

In 1994, Kim Jr. formally took the reins of power after his father's death. But as early as 1985, he had wrested daily control from his aging father. His takeover tool, according to Hwang Jang Yop, the North's top defector, who was chief of ideology and a tutor of Kim Jong Il, was called Ten Principles for the Establishment of One Ideology - written by Kim and based on a profound sense of the Kim family's destiny to rule Korea. It claimed "sole guidance" for Kim - and in practice, meant that all communication to and from Kim Sr. now went through his son.

"By the 1990s, Kim Sr. was just an adviser to his son," says Hwang Jang Yop. Under Kim's direction, the North evolved from a socialist dictatorship that could feed itself to a cult dynasty where feeding people is a secondary priority and nuclear weapons are the ultimate "chip" in dealing with the outside world.

In recent years, Kim's image in the West has vacillated between the skilled interlocutor who greeted former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a man who jokes, surfs the Internet, follows the NBA, and knows he must open up his failing isolated state and the figure formerly regarded as shadowy, enigmatic, and scary, if not monstrous. Perhaps it is both, say analysts in Seoul.

US officials in recent weeks have agonized over whether the tough talk of the Bush team has foolishly provoked Kim to play his nuclear cards, or whether Kim is the one who has overplayed his hand and is on the run. Perhaps it is both, say some observers here.

In Western media, much is made of Kim's habits and eccentricities. To be sure, there is much to say: Official Pyongyang media reports that he was born under a special star and can "expand space and shrink time" - a rare talent in a man who is afraid to fly and won't board an aircraft. Kim likes to work at night. He approves and often revises editorials in Rodong Shinmun, the official daily as part of a personal workload and oversight of details that is massive.

He obsesses about loyalty and has a motto that "keeping secrets is the essence of party loyalty," - he even monitors colleagues' wives. Kim issues orders by paper rather than face-to-face, and can be jealous of others who perform well. Mr. Hwang remembers Kim once pitting subordinates against each other, creating a publically televised "ideological struggle" and watching the fight from his office.

Kim's holdings in European banks may top $2 to 4 billion, proceeds from a personal gold-mining company. He loves Western film and art. He is a gourmet who, on a visit to Moscow by rail, had fresh rock lobsters flown to the train daily. On another occasion, Italian cooks and their entire kitchen were flown to an ocean liner docked on the North Korean coast, where Rome-based chef Ermanno Fumillo made 20 to 30 pizzas a day for Kim's entourage. (Kim's favorite is salmon pizza; he doesn't like it salty or spicy. Mr. Fumillo was asked once at 1 a.m. to revise the menu, balked, then, "cursing, I struck out various dishes containing anchovies and capers.")

Kim has a legendary weakness for women and parties. He's been married four time, coerced many actresses, and funded specially trained females in official "dancing teams," "happiness teams," and "satisfaction teams."