19 Dec 2011

Enigmatic world of North Korea’s ‘dear leader’

At the centre of an intense personality cult, the North Korean leader inspired a myriad of legends and parodies. Channel 4 News looks at the more bizarre side of the Kim Jong-il legacy.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong il whose death has been announced (Reuters)

From a memorable musical appearance in the 2004 film spoof Team America: World Police (“I’m so wone-wee!”), to a website consisting solely of pictures of “Kim Jong-il looking at things”, the lack of verifiable facts about the late “dear leader” meant he inspired a slew of parodies, jokes and often fantastical seeming stories – some of which are true.

In 1978, perhaps in preparation for his certain accession to power, film buff Mr Kim had the South Korean film director Shin Sang-OK kidnapped, in a story which reads like a film plot.

First Kim had the director’s ex-wife, Choi Eun-Hee, abducted. When Mr Shin attempted to find her in Hong Kong, he too was abducted.

Initially it seemed Mr Shin would be employed making better quality propaganda films for the regime, but clearly, having the (enforced) company of one of South Korea’s mainstream filmmakers was too good an opportunity to miss for Kim.

Some of the propaganda took on a bizarre form. The monster-film Pulgasari told the allegorical tale of the triumph of the peasantry over their feudal, i.e. capitalist, rulers, using a Godzilla-like creature as its hero.

Mr Shin’s escape from the North Korean regime four years later along with tapes he had made of his time there meant the whole story could be told and, in so doing, reveal insights into the bizarre, enclosed lifestyle of one of the world’s most notorious dictators.

‘A simple and frugal life’

After the death of his father, Kim il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, famed for his bouffant hairdo, platform shoes and jump suits, emerged from his father’s shadows to become one of the world’s most enigmatic leaders, putting North Korea on the path to becoming a nuclear power.

He even had his own birth-mythology. Rumoured stories include that when he was born, spring spontaneously arrived and a double rainbow was seen. Other stories about him and his reign include that he claimed to have invented the hamburger and that he wrote six operas in two years.

He was also said by ABC News in Australia to be a keen roller-blader.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong il whose death has been announced (Reuters)

“The great personality shines in the simple and frugal life” Kim once said, though for a man who reports say may have died due to the effects of heart disease and diabetes related to the finer things in life, it may not have been a maxim he himself lived by.

Like many fellow despots, Kim was a womaniser and a drinker, according to people in who were once in close contact with him. He enjoyed ogling Russian dancing girls, amassed a wine cellar with more than 10,000 bottles, and downed massive amounts of lobster and cognac.

But officially, Kim had an heroic profile. State propaganda said he piloted jet fighters (even though he travelled by land for his infrequent trips abroad), penned operas, had a photographic memory, produced movies (which was not entirely without foundation), and accomplished a feat no-doubt envied by Tiger Woods, shooting 11 holes-in-one on the first round of golf he ever played.

Despite the fact that the country suffered famine and chronic under-supply of food for its 24 million citizens, Kim was often snapped among an abundance of fruit and vegetables and in shops apparently fully-stocked with produce .

Portrayed in his own country as a superhuman saint and, in the west, as an almost stereotypical Bond villain, Kim Jong-il has given his successor much to live up (or down) to.