Tyrant... killer... party animalReaders who know and appreciate Michael Breen’s writing on Korea have a good deal to look forward to with the publication this month of a new work, “Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.”
The new book follows a broad-brush sociological expedition Mr. Breen undertook five years ago in “The Koreans,” a picture of life in South Korea. “Dear Leader” is much more an adventure, filled with horror, merriment and commentary running from the wry to the ribald. Gallows humor is Mr. Breen’s way of dealing with the appalling and inconceivable depredations Kim Jong-il has used to preserve a two-generation dynasty.
Constructed around many familiar stories about the North, Mr. Breen’s book tracks the background and mythology of Kim Jong-il’s turbulent childhood, partially spent in the Soviet Union during the Korean fight against the Japanese. Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, the resistance hero and eventual dictator of the North, is sketched, including details of the great man’s amusing battles with flatulence.
Recounted later is Kim Jong-il’s bizarre kidnapping of a film industry couple from the South in an apparent effort to improve the quality of movies made in the North. The infamously luxurious train journey three years ago that Kim took across Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin is colorfully recalled, complete with fresh lobster and dancing girls. Other stories cover the revenue Kim’s regime generates from illegal drug sales and counterfeit currency, the fledgling efforts to reform a collapsing state economy and, of course, the reasons behind the country’s dangerous ambition to build nuclear arms.
Though the episodes are well known to those familiar with Korea, Mr. Breen fills them in with lively details that didn’t make newspaper accounts. And where details are missing, a good deal of informed speculation takes their place.
To characterize Kim Jong-il, for instance, the author cites an unconfirmed incident in which the Dear Leader, after a hard night of drinking with friends, grants a “fellow party animal” permission to execute his wife. The apparent reason was that the wife was distressed at how dissolute her husband had become in the Dear Leader’s company and had impertinently complained about it in a letter to Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong-il, who liked to party, preferred that his father be kept in the dark.
With Kim Jong-il, Mr. Breen makes a passing effort to be fair. Though describing him as a man who was once the world’s greatest consumer of wildly expensive French cognac and who often had naked women on hand for various festivities, Mr. Breen writes that “there are no consistent reports to suggest that the North Korean leader is particularly debauched, at least no more so than your average businessman in Asia.”
Much of Mr. Breen’s material comes from the accounts of defectors and diplomats, but the author has some first-hand experience in North Korea, even though the visits were made under tight government supervision. He says he once snuck into the country pretending to be a Hong Kong-based businessman and then obsessively fretted he would be found out.
What his travels to the North allow is leeway for a discussion of the paranoia that can overcome someone entering the strange Stalinist world that Kim Jong-il runs. Hotel rooms for foreigners are imagined to have ― or may indeed have ― spy cameras behind mirrors. It is imagined that multilingual eavesdropping minders follow every conversation and move.
Mr. Breen impulsively plays a kind of Forrest Gump role when writing about more recent events. We learn about the author’s nasal surgery at the time of the historic encounter between Kim Jong-il and South Korea’s president Kim Dae-jung. “I watched the two leaders meet on TV with tampon-like things inserted bloodily into my nose.” In the same irreverent vein, readers are told about the founding father of Korea, a mythological figure named Tangun, the offspring of a tryst between a god and a bear, an event “which we can be thankful wasn’t caught on video.”
Beyond the mockery and flippancy lies the powerful heart of the book, a chapter on the death and despair that take place in North Korea’s concentration camps, the brutal prison and slave labor gulag set up for all who run afoul of Kim Jong-il’s regime. Here is where Mr. Breen does the world a real service.
Based on what appear to be reliable accounts of individuals who endured inhumanity only matched by what the Nazis perpetrated, the author lays out a catalog of horror. What is astonishing is that anyone escaped to tell the tales. A 19-year-old former prison guard who defected relates that a guard who killed an inmate attempting to escape would win the right to go college. As a result, innocent prisoners were simply murdered. Rape, forced abortions, infanticide and arbitrary beatings are humdrum events inside the North’s prisons. Prisoners could be executed for not committing to memory an hours-long speech by Kim Il Sung.
The book is a diatribe and never pretends to be an authoritative history. Mr. Breen uses his material to convey his utter disgust for the plight inflicted on the North Korean people by Kim Jong-il, whom he plainly derides as a repulsive leader. But unlike U.S. President George W. Bush, who regards Kim Jong-il as evil, Mr. Breen concludes that Kim Jong-il is not possessed by the Devil, but that he leads a despicable and evil regime.
While he covers a lot of ground, Mr. Breen chooses not to address an intriguing question.
Here is North Korea with its crumbling economy and starving population, now largely cut off from its former allies, principally China and Russia. How did such a decrepit country ever find the wherewithal to scare the dickens out of the rest of the world? The North’s nuclear weapons and sophisticated missile programs are the cause of the dizzying multilateral diplomacy now under way to stem the menace that Kim Jong-il represents.
At the end of the book, Mr. Breen offers a theory on how to unwind the dangerous situation, but it would be good to know how this backward nation was able to create such a viable threat in the first place. Others suggest Pakistan may have sold Kim Jong-il his nuclear technology. Meanwhile, North Korean aerospace engineers have acted like latter-day Wernher von Brauns in firing missiles with a range of 3,000 miles over Japan. Not real easy stuff to manage, or to understand how it was accomplished, while Kim Jong-il was partying.
‘North Korea both fascinates and repels us’
“Kim Jong-Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader,” by Michael Breen, is published by John Wiley & Sons. List price is $24.95; it costs 35,850 won at Kyobo Book Centre.
Michael Breen is a veteran British journalist with 20 years’ experience in Korea. His new book on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il follows “The Koreans,” a contemporary history of South Korea, published in 1999. Mr. Breen, who works as a management consultant, lives in Seoul with his family. He spoke about his new work with the JoongAng Daily.
Q. In some ways this is a difficult subject, given the secrecy and relative lack of information coming from North Korea. What inspired you to do the book?
A. North Korea is the wackiest place on earth and both fascinates and repels those of us living on this side of the border. But we actually know so little about it. Books on North Korea tend to be academic or policy-oriented. I wanted to try to do something more popular. I also wanted to focus on the man, Kim Jong-il, because no one else has and because he is the key to Korea’s future.
The book has a strong personal aspect. For example, there’s a good deal of mockery. You also insert yourself into the history. That seems unusual for a journalist.
I try to be engaging on a subject that lends itself to dry, over-serious writing full of difficult-to-remember names. It’s very easy to lose readers with too many sentences like, “Kim Jong-il turned to Kim Dae-jung and said, ‘Where’s Kim Young-sam?’” I may mock the political leaders, but I lose the mockery when it comes to the suffering of North Koreans. The chapters on the famine and on the gulag are very serious.
What about putting yourself into the book, making it personal, in effect?
Unlike in a short news story, in a book, readers need to get a sense of who the writer is. If a writer projects himself into the work in a way that doesn’t irritate or disappoint in terms of views and values, then I think there is a trust that’s established. I hope I’ve managed to do that.
What do you consider the centerpiece of the book?
The centerpiece is the examination of the degree of suffering endured by the North Korean people and the leader who is responsible for it. Kim Jong-il presides over a state that literally devours its own people. I look at the question of whether he is evil and conclude that he is personally not evil, but that the state itself is. I think this distinction is important if we are to avoid demonizing this small country ― leader and people.
Did anything surprise you in doing the research?
It’s curious to me how North Korea has suddenly taken global center stage. Korea has long been the center of the universe for those of us who live here, but for the rest of the world, we’re actually much lower on the agenda than we should be. Now suddenly, everyone has gotten worked up about this nuclear issue. This is all because of President Bush and U.S. policy.
by Charles D. Sherman