The Making of a Mad Man: The North Korean Facts & Fantasies that Shaped Kim Jong-Un

| March 21, 2013

“Where are the kid’s parents in all this?” It’s a question we often hear when a child’s decision-making skills are, shall we say, questionable. And what if that child just happens to be a thirty-year-old North Korean dictator? While little is known of Kim Jong-Un himself, his familial background is a Technicolor wonder.

When former Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman visited Kim recently, most of Washington and the media looked on to see if the red-afro’d pseudo-ambassador would help ease tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world.

But if a love of basketball was in his blood (Kim’s father was also a Bulls fan), it’s becoming more apparent that Kim Jong-Un also shares his predecessor’s despotic DNA: No sooner had Rodman returned Stateside, when the new dictator’s propaganda machine began cranking out videos showing President Obama engulfed in flames, and the White House in a sniper’s crosshair.

North Korea itself has long been a metaphorical spoiled child in a world that has grown weary from keeping it in line — however this particular precocious child is able to play with nuclear and chemical weapons, and once kidnapped a famous director and forced him to eat grass until he directed a phony Godzilla picture. Yes, that happened.

Growing up in your father’s figuratively tremendous — yet literally diminutive — footsteps would be difficult for any child, but when your father, Kim Jong-Il, was born under a double rainbow in a log cabin on a holy mountain and eight months later was able to converse fluently in Korean — now that’s a tough act to follow. And yes, according to the Dear Leader’s biography, that’s precisely how it happened. It should be noted, however, that Soviet documents report Kim Jong-Il (née  Yuri Irsenovich Kim) was born in the former USSR in Vyatskoye, but why spoil a perfectly good fairy tale with facts? It certainly never stopped Kim.

For example, if you’ve ever enjoyed a Gogigyeopbbang, which translates to “double-bread with meat inside,” then you’ve got the Dear Leader to thank for that. You see, Kim Jong-Il invented the hamburger.

And in 1994 the state media reported that at the opening of the capital’s first golf course, Kim easily landed eleven holes-in-one. But don’t get too impressed; just chalk it up to beginner’s luck since it was just his first time ever on a putting green.

Kim is also said to have written six operas, directed Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin because he wanted to educate his people on what the rest of the world was like, and scribed 1,500 books in a period of three years.

But not all Kim Jong-Il’s legacy is fallacy. Shin Sang-Ok, who died in 2006 at the age of eighty, was a prolific filmmaker in his native South Korea before he and his wife were abducted by North Korean agents in 1978.

When Kim Jong-Il demanded that Shin make propaganda films for his captors, Shin refused, and as a result, spent five years in prison where he was forced to eat tree bark, rice, and grass in order to survive. “It was lunacy,” Shin recalled in an interview with The Guardian in 2003.

Five years later, Kim had finally given up hope that Shin would ever make a propaganda picture for North Korea, so he released the director under the condition that Shin direct a Godzilla-type film. Shin acquiesced, and his monster movie, Pulgasari, which makes Godzilla look like Citizen Kane, was a hit. The director ended up making six more pictures prior to his dramatic escape while on a film location in Vienna in 1986.

While homosexuality and marijuana use are legal, according to the state-sponsored website, you may light up in public but you may not hold hands. There is also only one state-approved lipstick, and twenty-eight state-approved hairstyles and a man with hair over three inches long can face arrest.

Kim’s decadence was legendary. The Dear Leader is known to have imbibed $800,000 worth of Hennessy a year; and even had live lobsters flown in to meet up with his private train while traveling in Siberia. And while he ordered hundred of cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy flown in from France annually, ABC News reported that in the mid-1990s more than two-million North Koreans starved to death.

When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011, sobbing North Koreans publicly prostrated themselves before every statue in the country during the twelve-day, state-sanctioned mourning period, and apparently even the Earth itself mourned. According to the Korean Central News Agency, the holy mountain where Kim was said to be born lit up in a haloed glow and suddenly a carving appeared: “Mount Paektu, Holy Mountain of Revolution. Kim Jong-Il.” At the same time, ice on a nearby lake cracked so loudly, “it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth.”

Even birds cried. A crane appeared at a statue of Kim Jong-Il’s father in the far north, and according to the KCNA, the bird “seemed to mourn the demise of Kim Jong-Il, born of Heaven, after flying down there in the dead of an icy night, unable to forget him.” Now that’s a tear-jerker.

And then from the shadows came the dictator’s youngest son to take the reins. Unlike his father who grew up for fifty years working within the system and ascending to higher  senior Party positions before taking over, Kim Jong-Un, conversely had neither military nor political experience.

All that is really known of Kim Jong-Un’s demeanor and possible plot moves is that he is astonishingly mercurial and reckless. Only months after his father’s funeral, the White House brokered its first deal with the newly ascended dictator. It was agreed that the United States would give North Korea 240,000 tons of food if they promised to suspend both their nuclear and missile tests.

And all seemed to be going as planned until with only a month after the deal was agreed upon and the shipment was ready, Pyongyang launched a missile test anyway. Washington responded by halting the aid, and the United Nations Security Council called the test a violation of international law. Kim took to the airwaves and called the test actual proof of his country’s “military superiority.” Since that time, he has launched a satellite, tested additional missiles, and conducted two underground atomic bomb tests.

Whether it was a hubristic imbalance that drove the previous Kims to create their cults of personality, or their cushy cloisterings from reality, neither is a healthy mix for Kim Jong-Un nor the countries he threatens.

Between North Korea’s long-range missile test last December, and increased threats and propaganda videos, it’s becoming abundantly clear the world’s newest despot is certainly crazy enough to punch the red button to Doomsday. And if you don’t think he doesn’t have it in him to do so, you may very well be crazier than he is.

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