A dictator who brutalised his people, destabilised the world, and then left it all to his son

view gallery VIEW GALLERY


The man who presided over the state too crazy to fail is dead. Kim Jong-il, the pint-sized tyrant who never outgrew his khaki jumpsuits, is said to have died from a heart attack while on an inspection tour on board a train, aged 69 (or, more likely, 70).

The grief of his people, at least those captured by the cameras, was apparently unbounded: the newsreader on state TV clad in a formal black hanbok to make the announcement was ashen-faced and in tears, while on the streets of the capital Pyongyang women in puffa jackets and fur coats rocked, waved their hands and slapped the pavement in woe.

The scenes, if dubious to a western eye, appeared spontaneous and unrehearsed. Whether the result of genuine grief or fearful obedience to national protocol, they underlined how remote the hermit state remains not only from Europe but from every other country in the world, its closest neighbours to the north, south and east included.

In the 30 years since China began liberalising its economy under Deng Xiaoping's dictum that "to grow rich is glorious", North Korea succeeded in remaining immobile. It did so at immense cost to its people: some three million are believed to have died in the famine which climaxed in 1997, three years after Kim Jong-il succeeded his father in power. But if Kim Jong-il's chief goal was to avoid the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu and Saddam Hussein – after the invasion of Iraq he disappeared for four months and dodged between Pyongyang's supposedly nuke-proof buildings using a network of tunnels – his career can be considered a remarkable success.

It began with a lie and by the end he presided over a state which was a lie from top to bottom. He succeeded in keeping news of the state's burgeoning economic problems from reaching the ears of his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, who was tempted belatedly to follow China down the liberalisation path. Smaller and far less imposing than the elder Kim, who had been selected and groomed as a puppet leader by his Soviet minders before 1945, he cunningly managed the transfer of power into his own hands by means of another lie, persuading his people that the old man had not really died at all but was taking care of the nation's destiny from above as "the Eternal President".

Even in death Kim Il-sung remained "the Great Leader", while, with the grotesque flair for public relations he demonstrated throughout his 17 years at the top, the younger Kim became "the Dear Leader", the Peter Pan with the Billy Bunter waddle and the stand-up hair, depicted in hagiographic state portraits guffawing with laughter with his comrades or ingenuously applauding his own speeches. The man whose growth, both physical and mental, appeared stunted on the cusp of adulthood was the perfect ruler of a state which refused to grow up.

Kim Jong-il was born on a Red Army base in the far east of Russia and spent part of his childhood in China; a more auspicious birth was invented for him, in a partisan camp atop the nation's highest mountain, his appearance apparently announced by a swallow and accompanied by a double rainbow and a new star. His official birth was also postponed for a year, allowing him to be depicted as precisely 30 years younger than his father.

But if he was born into a world of make-believe, he was quick to seize the importance of enhancing and filling out the fairy tale. "In the early 1960s," wrote the Korea expert Jasper Becker, "Kim Jong-il took charge of propaganda in what had become the most regimented society in history. Koreans had to worship the whole family going back generations as divinely sanctioned saviours of the Korean nation and the whole universe." The most preposterous features of pre-war Japanese emperor-worship and Stalin's personality cult were fused together.

Over the years escapees provided astounding glimpses into the life of luxury which he fashioned for himself. A former chef revealed how he jetted around the world snapping up delicacies for his master's table: caviar from Iran and Uzbekistan, melons and grapes from China, sashimi from Japan, papaya and durian from Thailand, beer from the Czech Republic and Denmark for bacon. Once Kim kidnapped South Korea's best film director and forced him to invigorate the north's desperate movie industry.

Those who defied the regime paid a terrible price in a gulag archipelago which rivalled the worst of Stalin's. One guard in the camps told of his shock on first arriving and seeing walking skeletons of skin and bone, many with festering scars where they had been beaten, many missing ears which had been torn off. The guards were taught to regard them as sub-human, and they were killed in the cruellest ways, dragged behind jeeps or burnt or buried alive. A camp survivor spoke of how the prisoners were obliged to watch those sentenced to die being shot until their bodies were "honeycombed" with bullets.

And all the while the child-tyrant with the platform soles betrayed a keen understanding of what was required for his nation's, and his family's, survival. He maintained a state of permanent tension with the south, never allowing a peace treaty to be signed, more than 60 years after the end of hostilities; exacerbating that tension with periodic outbursts of carefully calibrated aggression; building, and then testing, nuclear weapons to ensure the West's (and Japan's) respect; keeping more than a million of the nation's population of 23 million under arms. And making sure that the ignorance of his people about the true state of affairs beyond the border remained as complete as possible.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

£25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor