The Last Emperor: From Defectors and Former Aides, a Portrait of Kim Jong Il Is Emerging

The New York Times Magazine
October 19, 2003

The Dear Leader is a workaholic. Kim Jong Il sleeps four hours a night, or if he works through the night, as he sometimes does, he sleeps four hours a day. His office is a hive of activity; reports cross his desk at all hours. Dressed as always in his signature khaki jumpsuit, he reads them all, issuing instructions to aides, dashing off handwritten notes or picking up the phone at 3 a.m. and telling subordinates what should lead the news broadcasts or whom to dispatch to a prison camp. His micromanaging style is less Caligula, with whom he has often been compared, and more Jimmy Carter on an authoritarian tear.

The Dear Leader, as the North Korean media refer to him, wishes to be viewed as a modern leader. He has boasted to visitors that he has three computers in his office, though it’s not known if he operates them himself or has aides who do so. His eldest son is reputed to be a computer whiz and, like sons the world over, is credited with bringing his father into the digital age. When Madeleine K. Albright, then the secretary of state, visited North Korea in 2000, Kim asked her, as he said farewell, to give him the State Department’s e-mail address.

Because of weakening eyesight, the Dear Leader rarely reads newspapers; for keeping abreast of world affairs, he relies on television. It is a safe bet that he is well aware of the uproar caused by his government’s confirmation, earlier this month, that it has begun making nuclear bombs from reprocessed plutonium. In a meeting a few years ago with a group of South Korean media executives, Kim explained that he began watching South Korean television in 1979. A media junkie, he also watches NHK from Japan, as well as CCTV from China and CNN. Having led his nation into chronic poverty and famine, what does he make of the enormous wealth he sees in the broadcasts and commercials?

Ordinary North Koreans would be sent to the gulag for watching Western TV, but the Dear Leader may do as he pleases, as all dictators may do as they please, and it pleases him to watch television. He especially enjoys watching tapes of the latest movies from Hollywood, some of which are believed to be sent to Pyongyang in diplomatic pouches from North Korean missions in New York and Beijing.

Kim is not known to speak Japanese or Chinese, so interpreters presumably assist him with foreign-language broadcasts; on any given evening, his interpreter might be his favorite mistress, Ko Young Hee, who was born in Japan and is assumed to speak Japanese. When Kim watches Russian television, as he says he does, he may not need an interpreter, because he spent his early years in the Soviet Union; when Russians visit, he sings them Soviet military songs. As for English, he knows at least a few words. A Japanese man who worked as Kim’s personal chef wrote in a recent memoir that the Dear Leader always asked for extra helpings of toro, his favorite cut of sushi, by saying “one more” in English.

The Dear Leader has always been a master of details. Although it was not until 1994, upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, that Kim Jong Il became the official ruler of North Korea, he was all but running the country for years before that. Appointments to any senior post were made by him, whether in the Korean Workers Party (which controls all government institutions) or the Korean People’s Army. Decisions on all manner of issues–from the gifts of food and electronic goods that party officials and commoners received on national holidays to the direction and scope of the country’s clandestine nuclear-weapons programs–were made by “the party center,” as Kim was called, in whispers, in the years before his father’s death. The choicest reward that he doled out was a Mercedes-Benz with a license plate that begins “2-16,” in reference to his birthday, Feb. 16.

The Dear Leader’s political skills, underestimated by foreign observers until recently, are beginning to register now that he has begun meeting foreigners on a regular basis and now that his regime, along with Iran, is one of two surviving members of the “axis of evil” proclaimed by President Bush. Albright’s delegation spent more than 12 hours with Kim over two days in October 2000, half of that time in negotiations and the other half at dinners and ceremonial functions. During one negotiating session, Kim was presented with a list of 14 technical questions related to his missile program; the Americans expected him to pass the list to advisers who would respond later. Instead, Kim went down the list, one question after another, and answered most of them himself.

Indeed, the Dear Leader, who turned 62 this year, knows quite a bit about the world around him. And after decades of being nearly clueless, the world around him is gradually getting to know the Dear Leader, too.

The Bush administration is trying to figure out how to end Kim’s regime, or at least to neutralize it. This is proving to be an extraordinarily difficult task, since the regime is far more resilient than anyone expected and far more dangerous.

North Korea has possessed short-range missiles for years, but was never known to have long-range missile capability. Then in 1998 North Korea stunned the intelligence community by launching a three-stage rocket bearing a satellite. The C.I.A. says that it believes these Taepodong-1 rockets could be used as missiles to reach the United States. The rocket veered off course after launch, so the North Koreans obviously have some kinks to work out. Even so, Washington is worried, not only about North Korea being able to launch an intercontinental attack but also about the North Koreans selling their missile technology to other regimes. North Korea is believed to have provided missiles to Pakistan in exchange for nuclear technology. And according to a recently released report by David Kay, the C.I.A. adviser on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, North Korea agreed in 1999 to a missile deal with Baghdad that was aborted late last year.

No one is sure of North Korea’s own nuclear intentions. In 1994, facing the threat of a pre-emptive attack by the United States, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a package of foreign aid and energy supplies. At the time, the C.I.A. publicly estimated that North Korea might already possess an atom bomb. The 1994 agreement fell apart in 2002 after North Korea kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors who were keeping watch over 8,000 plutonium rods that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade material.

During the past year, North Korea strongly hinted that the rods were being reprocessed, and on Oct. 2 the regime announced, more directly than before, that the reprocessing was under way and that its “nuclear deterrent force” was being expanded. Experts say that if all 8,000 rods are reprocessed, North Korea could make perhaps 20 nuclear bombs, but it’s not certain whether bombs have yet been made; bluffing is an integral element of Kim’s nuclear poker game.

Along with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, the United States began the first round of so-called six-party talks in Beijing with North Korea in late August, and a second round may be held in November. Whether those talks take place, and what happens if they do, depends greatly on whether the Bush administration decides to offer incentives for Kim to disarm or whether it decides to isolate him further. The underlying issues are quite stark: Can Kim be reformed? Can he be deposed? At the heart of the matter is this: Who is Kim Jong Il?

Dictators come in different strains, like poisons. Some are catastrophically toxic; others, less so. Quite often, the harm a dictator will cause is associated with an internal drive to violence or a paranoia that begets violence or a mixture of both. Saddam Hussein is a case in point; his personal viciousness is legendary. Dictators of this sort are easy to read and easy to despise because they are obvious killers.

But what is to be made of a dictator who is charming, as Kim can be, and has never been known personally to raise a weapon or even a hand against anyone? This can be a no-less-dangerous strain of dictator, and in the world today, Kim Jong Il is its most striking example. Though friendly with important visitors, Kim is vicious to his own people. An estimated two million of them died during a preventable famine in the 1990’s, and several hundred thousand are in prison and labor camps; many have been executed.

While I was a reporter in South Korea, from 1987 to 1990, it was common to view Kim as an erratic playboy; tales of his reclusiveness and tastes for women and wine were abundant. He was, it seemed, a nut job, incapable of holding North Korea together once his father died. While Kim Il Sung was alive, Kim Jong Il avoided the spotlight. North Koreans did not even hear his voice until a broadcast in 1992, when at a ceremony for the army’s 60th anniversary, he said, “Glory to the people’s heroic military!” Six words. It would be many years before he was heard from again.

Kim Jong Il has never granted an interview to a Western reporter, and visits to North Korea by Western journalists are exceedingly rare. (I visited Pyongyang in 1989 but was refused a visa this time around.) However, since 2000 a flood of information has emerged from South Koreans, Russians and Americans who have met the Dear Leader and from high-level defectors who have escaped his orbit. What emerges from these sources is a picture of a dictator who is not crazy like Idi Amin or bloodthirsty like Saddam Hussein. Kim can be courteous, he is very intelligent and he doesn’t drink nearly as much as he is rumored to. Nor is he the playboy that the popular myth makes him out to be.

Instead, his dictatorship mixes high technology with Confucian traditions: a kind of cyberfeudalism. It is an ideology that has been catastrophic for the people of North Korea.

It was the summer of 2000, and Kim Jong Il was in a sunny mood. He had just held a summit meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Dae Jung, South Korea’s president at the time. The South Koreans, in order to make the meeting happen, had provided $100 million in under-the-table payments, which meant North Korea’s usually bare treasury was temporarily not so bare. The cash had created a brief thaw in relations, and on Aug. 5 a delegation of South Korean media executives, including the heads of its television networks and newspapers, arrived at Pyongyang airport.

On their first night in North Korea’s capital, the visitors from Seoul were treated to a feast at a banquet hall. Wine from Bordeaux was served, along with multiple courses of Korean food, including kalbi-kuk, a meat stew. The guests ate with copper chopsticks, and their dinner lasted for four hours, presided over at the head table by the Dear Leader. Seated to his right was Choe Hak Rae, then publisher of Hankyoreh Shinmun, a newspaper known for its friendly coverage of North Korea.

As Choe recalls, Kim was ebullient, acting more like a Broadway producer with a smash hit on his hands than a dictator running a repressive and impoverished regime. Kim told jokes and casually conversed about everything from horses to missiles. When a fawning aide stopped by the head table and began praising his boss, Kim told him to skip the formalities–his precise words, in Korean, were “Cut it out”–and pour wine for their brothers from South Korea. He cried out “Straight!” when it came time for a toast, meaning that they should drain their glasses, but he only sipped his own wine. Kim told his guests that his doctors had suggested he cut down on liquor. Dictators can do many things, but they cannot keep their livers young forever.

The conversation turned to hobbies. Kim is an avid equestrian and told Choe that his best thoughts occur on horseback. He prefers Orlovs, a Russian breed, and likes to ride them as fast and as far as they can go.

The subject of war was raised, delicately. Why, Choe inquired, was North Korea’s government spending its scarce resources on ballistic missiles instead of education or other social programs that would directly benefit its starving citizens? The Dear Leader did not hesitate to reply. “The missiles cannot reach the United States,” he said, “and if I launch them, the U.S. would fire back thousands of missiles and we would not survive. I know that very well. But I have to let them know I have missiles. I am making them because only then will the United States talk to me.”

The North Korean leader took a liking to Choe and invited him to return with his family, offering to show them around and ride horses with them. When Choe left Pyongyang a few days later, Kim shook his hand at a farewell luncheon and said, with great emotion: “Keep your promise. Come next spring with your family.”

Choe has not returned–the North-South thaw has chilled a bit–but North Korean officials have passed on to him a stream of entreaties from the Dear Leader. The gist of the messages, according to Choe, whom I met in Seoul in August, is quite simple: “Why haven’t you come?”

According to the official version of his life story, Kim was born on Feb. 16, 1942, in a log cabin on Mount Paektu, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula. When he was born, the official version goes, the sky was brightened by a star and a double rainbow.

The truth is that Kim was born a year earlier in the Soviet Union, at an army base near Khabarovsk, in the Soviet far east, not far from the short border shared by the two countries. His father was stationed there as the commander of a Korean battalion in the Soviet Army 88th Brigade, which engaged in reconnaissance missions against Japanese troops. Because it would be inconvenient, for reasons of Korean nationalism, to have Kim born on foreign soil, his place and date of birth have been fabricated in official biographies.

The biographers also make no mention of Kim’s childhood name–Yura, which is Russian and was used through his high-school years. Kim had a younger brother who also had a Russian nickname, Shura. In 1945, after Japan was defeated and the northern half of Korea occupied by Soviet troops, Kim Il Sung was taken to Pyongyang by his Soviet benefactors and installed as the leader of North Korea. (The official version has Kim Il Sung heroically leading Korean guerrillas in a rout of the Japanese.) A few months later, the boys moved to Pyongyang, where their younger sister, Kim Kyung Hee, was born.

Shura died in 1948 in a drowning accident while swimming in a pond with Kim Jong Il. In 1949, Kim’s mother, Kim Jong Sook, died while giving birth to a stillborn child. Though well cared for–their father, after all, was North Korea’s leader–Kim Jong Il and his little sister became de facto orphans: their mother dead, their father busy laying the groundwork for his socialist paradise. In 1950, the Korean War broke out, and the children were sent to the safety of Manchuria, where they stayed until the war ended in 1953. Kim was learning to survive on his own, which meant using his wits.

Back in Pyongyang, he attended Namsan Senior High School, where the ruling elite’s children were educated; he often rode a motorcycle to class. Even then, he was a student of power. According to Hwang Jang Yop, who was a top aide to Kim Il Sung, the younger Kim showed an early interest in politics. (Hwang defected from North Korea in 1997, so his memoir, published in South Korea, is hardly an official hagiography.) In 1959 Hwang accompanied Kim Il Sung to Moscow, and although Kim Jong Il was only a senior in high school, he went along, too.

“Kim Jong Il was intelligent and full of curiosity, asking me many questions,” Hwang wrote. “Despite his young age, he already harbored political ambitions. He paid special attention to his father. . . . Every morning he would help his father to get up and put on his shoes.” In the evening, Hwang wrote, when Kim Il Sung returned from a day of official meetings, Kim Jong Il assembled his father’s staff “and had them report to him about the things that happened during the day. He then proceeded to give orders.”

In 1964, Kim graduated with a degree in political economy from Kim Il Sung University, an elite institution where, according to a South Korean biographer, he was addressed as “the premier’s son.” He went to work in the central committee of the Korean Workers Party, first as a ministerial assistant, swiftly becoming a senior official in the propaganda and agitation department, which controlled much of the party’s agenda.

Kim was working his way up the system, and working the system, but also looking over his shoulder. Nothing in his rise to power would be easy or preordained. Dynastic succession was far from inevitable, and even if there was to be a dynasty, it was not clear whether Kim would be its beneficiary. His uncle, Kim Young Ju, was a senior government official. More threatening, however, was Kim’s new stepmother: Kim Song Ae, a typist whom Kim Il Sung married in the early 1960’s.

According to accounts from defectors, as well as from Chinese and Soviet visitors to North Korea, Kim Jong Il did not get along with his stepmother. There are unconfirmed stories that he tore her face out of pictures. Kim Song Ae became a member of the central committee of the Korean Workers Party, giving her a position from which to influence succession. She had children with Kim Il Sung, and one of their sons, Kim Pyong Il, was viewed as a possible heir because of his intelligence and likeness to his father. (Famously, Kim Jong Il was several inches shorter than his father, an inconvenience that led him to wear platform shoes.)

As he moved to secure his position, Kim needed to remain in the good graces of his father while outmaneuvering his stepmother, half-brother, uncle and anyone else–particularly the country’s powerful generals–who wished to lead North Korea.

Kim Il Sung’s regime did not take long to veer from Communist orthodoxy and become a personality cult of the sort perfected by Stalin in the Soviet Union. In the early 1970’s, North Koreans began wearing lapel pins bearing the likeness of the Great Leader, as the official media described Kim Il Sung; he was portrayed as, basically, infallible. The elite was purged of anyone with wavering loyalty or anyone who might develop wavering loyalties; Kim Il Sung placed close relatives at his side.

During this period, Kim Jong Il was working hard to smooth his way to power.

“I had an impression that he was implementing his plans to get rid of even those very close to Kim Il Sung, including his uncle,” Hwang wrote. “In order to show his father that he was the most loyal, he singled out people near Kim Il Sung. Arguing that these people were not loyal and citing doubts about their ideology or competency, he would relentlessly attack and remove them.”

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that through the 70’s and 80’s Kim Jong Il filled his nights with parties and days with terrorism. In 1987, two North Korean agents placed a bomb aboard a Korean Air Lines flight, killing all 115 people on board. One agent, a young woman, was caught and said after extradition to Seoul that her controllers told her the attack was ordered by Kim Jong Il.

Whatever his role in terrorism, it has become clear that Kim Jong Il was running North Korea well before his ailing father died in 1994, at the age of 82, of an apparent heart attack. In the years before his death, according to Hwang, “Kim Il Sung was not the Kim Il Sung of years past. Most of his vitality had disappeared, and he was turning into an old man concerned only with successfully handing over power to Kim Jong Il.”

Many North Korea experts believe Kim Jong Il stayed in the background for the sake of appearances: in a Confucian society, a son must defer, publicly, to his father. If Kim Jong Il moved too rashly, he might have engendered resentment from elderly members of the military whose backing or quiescence he needed.

One way he cemented his hold on power was to do as his father did: place close relatives in influential positions. Kim’s sister, Kim Kyung Hee, became a powerful figure within the Korean Workers Party and has been referred to in the government media as “First Lady.” Her husband, Chang Song Taek, heads the party’s organizational department. His brother, Chang Song U, commands the army district that defends Pyongyang.

Kim’s control over the military and his insinuation of loyalists into key command positions are a linchpin of his hold on power. He travels often within North Korea, particularly to military bases, because, as he told the South Korean media chiefs, “my power comes from the military.” Though he has many posts, including general secretary of the Korean Workers Party, the one that truly counts is his chairmanship of the National Defense Commission, which controls the armed forces.

Kim’s regime is best understood as an imperial court, clouded in intrigue, not unlike the royal households that ruled Japan, China and, throughout most of its existence, Korea itself. Until the 20th century, Korea was led by feudal kings, notably the Yi dynasty. By creating a personal and uncaring regime, Kim Il Sung wasn’t stealing a page from only Stalin; he was also stealing it from Korean history, a fact that helps explain its durability.

“North Korea is a semifeudal society that is still based on traditional Korean values,” says Alexandre Mansourov, a scholar at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies who was a Soviet diplomat based in Pyongyang in the 1980’s. “There are traces of modernity, but if you look at the structure of thinking, it is very traditional, in a medieval sense.”

A hallmark of emperors is lavish court entertainment in the face of poverty or distress in their domains. Kim Jong Il appeared to be cut from this imperial cloth. Through the 70’s and 80’s, stories emerged from North Korea of wild parties Kim Jong Il held, attended by beautiful women and drunken men. One of the finest accounts of that era comes from Choi Eun Hee, a popular South Korean actress who was kidnapped from Hong Kong in 1978 and bundled off to North Korea. Kim was disappointed with the backward state of North Korea’s film industry, so he tried to jump-start it by ordering the kidnapping of Choi and, shortly thereafter, her husband, Shin Sang Ok, a director in Seoul.

After they were taken to Pyongyang, he explained to them, in a conversation that they surreptitiously recorded, “I just said, ‘I need those two people, so bring them here,’ so my comrades just carried out the operation.” Eight years later, after making a number of films in North Korea, Choi and Shin escaped while visiting Vienna.

In a memoir she wrote with her husband, “Kidnapped to the North Korean Paradise,” which has not been published in English, Choi recalls being woken one morning at 5 at the guarded villa where Kim had placed her. Her controller told her to get dressed quickly, but wouldn’t say why. Within minutes, a Mercedes arrived at the villa and whisked her into central Pyongyang, to a building used for Kim Jong Il’s parties.

“As I entered,” Choi wrote, “I was assaulted with the pungent odor of alcohol. Farther inside, I saw quite a spectacle. Forty or 50 people apparently had partied all night. The men were drunk, and there were several women I had never seen before.”

They perked up when the actress arrived. She was prevailed upon to have a drink, then another and another. The Dear Leader was not in mint condition; his eyes were bloodshot, and his speech was slurred. He had apparently been drinking all night long.

“A band was performing in the front of the room,” Choi wrote. “All the girls were in their 20’s. Kim Jong Il, drunk, gave a string of requests. Songs changed according to his request. The girls looked tired. He asked me to conduct the band. I declined, but then the others joined in on the request: ‘Comrade Choi, our beloved leader doesn’t let just anybody conduct the band. It’s a great honor. Do it.”‘

So she did it. She soon felt ill from the alcohol, and Kim Jong Il ordered one of the women to take her to a room upstairs to rest. She fell asleep on a sofa, but was soon woken by a senior party official. “I felt lips on my cheek,” she recalled. She slapped the official and told him to get lost.

Accounts of this sort gave the impression, outside North Korea, that Kim Jong Il was no more competent to take charge of his homeland than Hugh Hefner. Now, however, his bacchanalian ways are being viewed from a different, subtler perspective. As anyone who has spent time with South Korean or Japanese politicians knows, boozing and womanizing are an integral part of their political culture. Your drinking buddy is your political ally. It is the equivalent, in Tokyo and Seoul, of jogging with George W. Bush. Bonds are forged; loyalties, rewarded.

While at high school, Kim Jong Il had a close friend whose older brother was married to a particularly attractive young woman, Sung Hae Rim. At the time she was 19. Kim noticed her beauty, as teenage boys do, but nothing came of it until he graduated from college and, while working at the central committee, immersed himself in a passion that would remain with him for the rest of his life: movies. He often visited Pyongyang’s main film studio to watch movies and visit sets. He would later receive credit for producing at least a half dozen films and musicals, and he wrote two books, “On the Art of Cinema” and “Kim Jong Il on the Art of Opera” (both works are sold at

During one visit to the studio, he again noticed Sung Hae Rim, who had become an actress and was usually cast in the role of a heroine. One thing led to another, and Kim fell in love. Inconveniently, Sung Hae Rim was married and had a child, but according to her sister, Sung Hae Rang, who defected in 1996 and recently published a memoir in Korean, Kim forced Sung to leave her husband and live with him.

It was a strange and tragic situation. Kim could not marry Sung because of her previous marriage, her child and the fact that she was six years his senior; in a Confucian society, a match of that sort would be frowned upon, especially for a man who was to inherit a nation. Kim did not even feel safe telling his strait-laced father about his new love; the affair could bump him off the fast track to succession.

According to Sung Hae Rang’s memoir, which is called “Wisteria House,” her sister was moved to one of Kim’s secluded villas and rarely traveled outside of it. In 1971, she became pregnant. This posed a logistical inconvenience, because Kim could not visit the hospital where she gave birth. To do so would reveal to prying eyes that he was the father of an illegitimate child.

Sung’s sister wrote that Kim and Sung arranged a covert system to inform him of his child’s birth and its sex. Kim parked his car outside the hospital every night she was there and flicked his lights on and off to signal that it was he. Once the baby was born, Sung signaled back the birth of the child and its sex by flicking the room’s light on and off in a prearranged sequence.

The child was a boy, and he was named Kim Jong Nam. Within a few years of his birth, Sung Hae Rim began suffering insomnia and other nervous disorders. She was sent to Moscow for treatment at sanitariums and spent most of the remainder of her life there; she died in Russia in 2002. When her sister left for Moscow, Sung Hae Rang was put in charge of the boy’s upbringing. Though it became known in Pyongyang that he was Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Nam remained cloistered at different villas and was eventually sent with Song Hae Rang and her son, Lee Il Nam, to Geneva, where Kim Jong Nam was enrolled at a private school. Lee Il Nam disappeared from Geneva and emerged later in Seoul. He wrote a memoir about his life in the Dear Leader’s household, and in 1997 he was killed in what South Korean officials say was an assassination by North Korean agents.

The palace intrigue had other chapters. Kim Il Sung became aware of Kim Jong Il’s affair and disapproved of it. In the early 70’s, he ordered his son to marry Kim Young Sook, the daughter of a senior military official. Although Kim Jong Il does not spend much time with his “official” wife, she has remained loyal to him. She is not considered a power broker. She bore a daughter by Kim; the daughter has played no role in politics.

Kim soon fell for yet another woman, Ko Young Hee, a dancer who caught his eye when her troupe performed at one of his parties. A delicate beauty, she was from a family of Koreans who had lived in Japan and immigrated to North Korea in the 1960’s. Kim could not wed her–he was already married, after all–so he housed her in still another of his villas. She soon bore him two sons, and last year she was spoken of publicly–and favorably–in the North Korean media, suggesting that her sons were rising in official esteem. Early this month, however, a Japanese newspaper reported that Ko Young Hee was seriously injured in a car crash.

In 2001, Kim Jong Nam was detained at Narita airport, outside Tokyo, as he was trying to enter the country with two women and a 4-year-old boy on a fraudulent passport from the Dominican Republic. He said he just wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He was expelled to China. Because, in part, of this embarrassment, Kim Jong Nam is no longer considered a front-runner for succession; two North Korea watchers in Seoul told me that he lives in China and is afraid to return to North Korea. It now appears that Kim Jong Chul, 22, the Dear Leader’s son by his mistress Ko Young Hee, is first in line for succession.

At 8 in the morning on July 26, 2001, a five-car train rolled into Khasan, which is on the Russian side of the border between Russia and North Korea. A carpeted platform was brought to the main car, and when its door opened, Kim Jong Il emerged, waving and smiling to the officials assembled at the station. Kim was embarking on the longest foreign trip in his adult life, a 24-day rail odyssey across Russia.

Journalists scrambled to various cities on the itinerary–Khabarovsk, Omsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow–hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious North Korean. Few of them succeeded, because Kim was kept far apart from inquiring eyes. He traveled in an armored rail car, with a locomotive seven minutes ahead to make sure the track was safe and another locomotive several minutes behind to make sure nobody could commandeer a train and ram it into the rear of the Dear Leader’s caravan.

For the Russians who escorted Kim, the trip offered the first prolonged encounter foreigners would have with him. The informal silence about the trip lasted for more than a year, until Konstantin Pulikovsky, a presidential envoy who headed the Russian delegation escorting Kim, published a memoir in Russian about the journey. This led other officials to discuss it, including Georgy Toloraya, a diplomat who had been based in North Korea and speaks fluent Korean.

The Dear Leader, it turns out, does not travel third class. His train was stocked with live lobster, French wine and fresh pastries, and his entourage included four young women who entertained him and his companions by singing songs in Korean and Russian. One car was a meeting room with two flat-panel screens, one for films (videos of military parades were among his favorites) and the other for a satellite-updated map of the train’s progress, much like the ones in airplane cabins.

Kim visited an array of sites, including a pig farm, a brewery, a space firm and the Hermitage Museum. He even went to a department store in Khabarovsk, where he stopped at the perfume department and asked where the scents came from. He spent a few minutes in the beauty salon and also visited the sports department, where skis and sportswear were sold; he rubbed the fabrics to assess their quality. In the men’s-wear department, he inquired why some pants had cuffs and some didn’t, and he seemed surprised at the cost of Italian shoes–about $400.

“Do people here really buy such expensive shoes?” he asked.

For the Russians, Kim’s rail odyssey confirmed what they had been thinking of the Dear Leader–that he is smart and wants to reform his country’s failed economy, but does not wish to lose power. “When I read somewhere that he is a madman who doesn’t understand what he is doing–that is laughable stuff,” said Toloraya, the Russian diplomat who was on the train and met Kim on several dozen occasions. Toloraya is now the Russian consul general in Sydney, and I interviewed him on the phone. “He is a professional in state governance. What he does is very well prepared. It would be a mistake to think of him as an impossible, unpredictable character. He is an emotional person, but he is a professional. He knows what he is doing. He plans several steps ahead.”

The Russians weren’t the only ones getting to know the charms and wishes of the Dear Leader. Kim’s coming-out to the rest of the world included, in October 2000, an unprecedented visit to North Korea by an American delegation led by Secretary of State Albright. This was in the waning days of the Clinton administration, before the 1994 nuclear agreement fell apart, and Albright wanted to sound out Kim on a plan for ending his missile-production program; Kim, in return, wanted Clinton to visit Pyongyang.

The Americans were in for some surprises.

The North Koreans had promised that Albright would see Kim, but when she arrived in Pyongyang, her schedule did not include a meeting with him. Her delegation was whisked into the city in the early morning, to the guest house where they would stay, and shortly afterward they were taken on a tour that many foreign visitors go through in Pyongyang, highlighted–that may not be the right word–by a visit to the tomb of Kim Il Sung.

At lunch, Albright was abruptly told she would meet Kim in the afternoon. The delegation was driven to his guest house, and as Albright stood in front of a huge mural depicting a storm at sea, Kim walked in, greeting her with both hands extended forward. They were about the same height, Albright in her heels and Kim in his platform shoes.

He poured on the charm. Kim asked Albright if she had seen any recent films, and when she replied “Gladiator,” Kim said he had seen “Amistad,” which he described as “very sad.” He proudly told Wendy Sherman, who was in Pyongyang as special adviser to Clinton on North Korea: “I own all the Academy Award movies. I’ve watched them all.”

Smart as he is, Kim lives in a different world and doesn’t always realize it. One evening, the Albright delegation was shepherded into a stadium in Pyongyang, where they were seated next to Kim. For the next two hours the Americans were treated to a “mass game”–a fantasia of synchronized gymnastics on the stadium floor and card-turning displays on the opposite side of the stadium. The exactitude of these “games” is terrifying. They are often staged on important national occasions; dignitaries from friendly countries were invited to a particularly spectacular display to mark Kim Jong Il’s birthday last year. I attended a mass game display in Pyongyang in 1989, and the sensation a Westerner feels is not artistic appreciation but totalitarian horror.

One card montage performed for Albright showed a North Korean missile being launched into the sky. It was an odd display for Americans who were negotiating a cessation of missile production and research. But Kim, ever the showman, turned to Albright on his right and said, “That was our first missile launch and our last.” To make sure his message got through, he turned to Sherman on his left and repeated his statement. The meaning was clear: the missile program can be stopped if you offer us a new relationship. “This was totally orchestrated, the cards and turning to us,” Sherman said when I spoke with her at the Washington office of the Albright Group, a consulting firm. “For all I know, that was the purpose of taking us to the stadium.”

Albright and Sherman returned to Washington convinced that Kim Jong Il’s stated intentions should be put to the test: he should be offered a new relationship with the U.S. government, including a visit by Clinton to North Korea, if he was willing to submit to a verifiable agreement on halting missile research, production, deployment and exports. This was a position that critics would certainly attack as appeasement, but for Albright and Sherman, it was a price worth paying to end the North Korean missile threat.

“I have no illusions about Kim,” Sherman said. “He’s charming but totally controlling. He is a leader who has left his people with no freedom, no choices, no food, no future. People are executed. There are labor camps. But the decision we have to make is whether to try to deal with him to open the country so that the people of North Korea do have freedom, do have choices, do have food. Do I think it would be preferable to not deal with him? Yes, but the consequences are horrible, so you have to deal with him.”

The clock ran out. There wasn’t enough time before Clinton left office to negotiate the agreements that would need to be in place before Air Force One could take off for North Korea. The momentum halted with the advent of the Bush administration. But now, with the second round of six-party talks nearing, the Americans are trying to figure out once again whether and how to deal with Kim.

Choe Hak Rae, the former newspaper publisher, remains hopeful. The way he sees it, Kim Jong Il knows his economy has failed and wants to reform it. Signs of change in the north are already evident: some prices have been deregulated, farmers’ markets have been established and North Korean officials have been dispatched to foreign countries to learn about business. The bear wants to get out of its cage, Choe says. “The more he is regarded as the worst person of the century, the more he will become a dangerous man,” Choe told me. “But if safety and security are guaranteed for himself and North Korea, I don’t think he will be a danger.”

Wendy Sherman is more cautious, but she and other advocates of engagement say that Kim believes, erroneously, that he can control the tempo and impact of opening up to the rest of the world. It is not clear yet whether her point of view has much traction in the Bush administration, which veers from warlike hostility to occasional murmurs of peaceful coexistence if Kim disarms.

The notion that a dictator like Kim can be coaxed to reform has no real historical precedent. The most notable totalitarian regimes of the modern era–the ones developed by Stalin in the Soviet Union and by Mao Zedong in China–were not reformed by the men who shaped them. Reform of such states requires a degree of repudiation that the authors of failure are loath to tolerate, mostly out of fear for their own survival. In essence, proponents of engagement hope Kim will begin a process that will lead to his downfall. It seems doubtful that he will be sufficiently selfless or stupid to do that.

The disarmament question is even stickier. The administration has waged two pre-emptive wars on countries it deemed to be enemies–Afghanistan and Iraq. It does not require Kissingerian smarts to calculate that a member of the axis of evil would be death-wish foolish to relinquish the weapons of mass destruction that may be the only thing, by virtue of the horrible implications of their use, that stands in the way of an American attack. The real issue isn’t whether Kim is crazy enough to amass a nuclear arsenal but whether he is crazy enough to dispossess himself of his one bargaining chip.

What is the solution? I decided to seek out a man who knows Kim Jong Il better than anyone else outside North Korea: Hwang Jang Yop. Hwang was the Karl Rove of North Korea for more than three decades, creating the ideology of Juche, or self-sufficiency, that was the bedrock of Kim Il Sung’s regime and remains in place today–though in name only, since North Korea depends on foreign aid for its survival. Working at the center of the regime, Hwang learned what Kim Jong Il wants, what he can do and what he will not do.

On a Saturday morning in August, I went with my interpreter to a private club in Seoul, where I met Cho Gab Je, a prominent conservative journalist who edits a magazine, the Monthly Chosun, that is known for its hard-hitting coverage of North Korea. We got into a sedan and drove to an office building in a suburb of the city; Cho is friendly with Hwang and arranged for me to meet him. I agreed to not provide details of the building or its location, other than to say that the anteroom is guarded by a number of armed security agents and that you must pass through a metal detector before entering Hwang’s office. Hwang’s caution is understandable: North Korea is believed to have agents in the South who would be eager to silence their homeland’s most famous traitor.

Hwang is 80 and hard of hearing; I sat in an armchair to his immediate left. He is small and thin and was dressed in a dark blue suit and blue tie. He is not particularly warm with visitors or, it would seem, with anybody. Though he lived a privileged life in North Korea–he had a phone at his home, ample food and a car, and he traveled extensively outside the country–his defection has brought doom onto his family. His wife is rumored to have committed suicide after his defection, as did his daughter, who is said to have jumped out of a bus that was taking her to a prison camp. It is assumed that his other children and grandchildren are in prison camps, if they are still alive.

He does not talk about his personal life, but he does talk about the Dear Leader.

“If I were to go into details, it would take many days,” he said. “As a politician or leader who can work for the development of the state and the happiness of the people, he is an F student, a dropout. But as a dictator he has an excellent ability. He can organize people so that they can’t move, can’t do anything, and he can keep them under his ideology. As far as I know, the present North Korean dictatorial system is the most precise and thorough in history.”

Hwang says that he believes foreign aid has helped Kim by providing the resources he needs to retain the loyalty of his core constituencies–the military and party elites. Hwang says he does not believe Kim would ever allow foreign aid and investment to benefit the people who need it; Kim has shown no interest in his people’s material well-being, and given the choice between regime survival and national prosperity, it’s pretty clear which he would prefer. A few years ago, Kim began letting South Koreans visit the north, and this was seen as a relaxation of the isolation of his information-starved subjects. But the tourists, whose visits provide much-needed hard currency to the regime, are shepherded in quarantinelike conditions that make them virtual prisoners; contact with ordinary North Koreans is nil. Hwang says outsiders are naive to believe that Kim is ready to open up his country.

“South Korea is being fooled, and the Chinese, who should know best,” he said. “A considerable number of people are being fooled, including the United States.”

Hwang’s synopsis of Kim’s dictatorship reminded me of a passage from his memoir. He wrote about a 1992 banquet that Kim presided over in Pyongyang; a dance troupe provided lavishly choreographed entertainment.

The performance “was enough to elicit disgust when seen through the eyes of people with healthy minds,” Hwang wrote, recalling that he nonetheless applauded vigorously for the entertainers. A professor who was next to him was flummoxed.

“Are you clapping because you really enjoy the performance?” the professor asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hwang replied. “Just clap like mad. It’s an order.”

Kim’s hold on power depends not only on his willingness to impose misery upon his people but also on the willingness of the North Korean elite to accept their privileges and say nothing. Many North Koreans are well aware of the repressed and backward state of their homeland and wish it were otherwise; recent visitors say North Koreans quietly express a desire for greater contact with the outside world. The problem is that none of them are prepared to force or even nudge their wishes upon Kim Jong Il. The Dear Leader understands, as smart tyrants do, that perpetual clapping is generated by terror. That is why he works 20 hours a day to make sure the applause of fear does not stop.

When his regime is brought to an end, as one day it will be, the cause will not be his napping. Kim has had plenty of time, and he has worked hard, to insulate himself from the type of events that have led to the collapse of other tyrannies and dynasties. But the downfall of dictators is unpredictable. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of its Eastern European brethren, the easing of Maoist discipline in China–these happened in ways that were not foreseen. It is very likely, too, that the unimaginable will get Kim Jong Il in the end.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.