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North Korea's Kim Jong-Il Skilled at Holding Power

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North Korea's Kim Jong-Il Skilled at Holding Power


North Korea's Kim Jong-Il Skilled at Holding Power

North Korea's Kim Jong-Il Skilled at Holding Power

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The popular image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a hard-drinking playboy is not accurate, according to The New York Times Magazine reporter Peter Maass. He tells Steve Inskeep that Kim is a hard worker with a knack for survival.


North Korea's next move will likely be up to its supreme leader, Kim Jong Il. He has never spoken to a Western journalist, but some have tried to assemble a picture of him.

One is Peter Maass, who profiled the North Korean leader for the New York Times Magazine, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program.

Mr. PETER MAASS (Contributing Writer, New York Times Magazine): Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Is Kim Jong Il as isolated as his country seems to be?

Mr. MAASS: Actually not. He's certainly not as connected to the rest of the world as, you know, say the prime minister of France or the UK, but he is connected to the rest of the world. He does watch foreign television - all of the time, really.

When people, foreign visitors, do visit him, they find him very much up to date on a range of world issues, though also other issues, including, you know, who won the most recent Academy Awards.

INSKEEP: He follows the Academy Awards?

Mr. MAASS: Yeah, well, when there was an American delegation led by Madeleine Albright that visited Pyongyang in 2000, he actually mentioned to one of the members of that delegation that he owned copies of all of the finalists for Academy Award for best movie.

INSKEEP: Been shopping on e-Bay?

Mr. MAASS: It's believed that he gets his movies via diplomatic pouch.

INSKEEP: Can you tell me some of the legends that have grown up about Kim Jong Il?

Mr. MAASS: There are a lot of legends about Kim Jong Il, but most of them have been kind of shot down by now. The legends were that he was just this kind of pudgy playboy who just stayed up all night long drinking and slept all day long. The conclusions that people made from that kind of legend was that he's therefore, you know, no more capable to run North Korea than Hugh Hefner, and nobody ever expected that he would ever actually be able to stay in power.

That's been totally overturned, because indeed, when he took power in 1994 - when his father died - everybody pretty much, in South Korea and in America as well, really didn't expect him to stay in power terribly long. He has. And what's emerged - because now there's much more information about him, from defectors, from people who've spent time with him - is a portrait, particularly when he was he was younger, of somebody who - even from a young age, as a teenager - was very smart, was interested in politics, was taking notes, was traveling with his father to Russia and really kind of learning about power, how to manipulate power, how to stay in power. Because it was never certain at all, never really kind of preordained, that Kim Jong Il would lead North Korea.

When he was young there were a lot of...

INSKEEP: Even though his father was the founder of North Korea?

Mr. MAASS: Well, his father had several other children. His father had several wives. His father had brothers. Kim Jong Il had a stepmother who he did not get along with at all, and who he was very much at odds with. He competed against them and he came out on top, and that's really not easy to do.

INSKEEP: It was often said of Saddam Hussein, that he was insanely brutal, but quite smart in his own way. And the evidence was that he had survived for so long as leader of Iraq. Is Kim Jong Il smart in that way?

Mr. MAASS: I'd say, absolutely. North Korea is a brutally poor state. It has really no kind of exports to speak of, other than counterfeit dollars and missile technology. So he can't pacify the population with goodies. So he's had to compensate for that by being, you know, incredibly ruthless, but also incredibly wily.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by wily?

Mr. MAASS: One of the things that he's done, for example - and these are kind of little trinkets that he throws out - but when he wants to reward people, one of the things that he's done is he's given them a car, often a Mercedes. But, kind of most interestingly, the car itself would have a license plate that began with the numbers two hyphen sixteen. That refers to Kim Jong Il's birth date, February 16th. So he's always reminding people, when they get anything from the state, that it comes from him.

INSKEEP: Is there any chance that this whole nuclear confrontation with the rest of the world is all about North Korea's domestic political situation?

Mr. MAASS: Well, that's certainly a great amount of it. Because one of the things that Kim Jong Il needs to do is to kind of portray himself as being the defender of the country. By having an enemy, you know - the United States or whomever - the leader can seem to be all that stands between the people and disaster. Much of that is just total rubbish. But there is this myth that he has constructed, and it seems to have helped him, because he's still there.

INSKEEP: Peter Maass, thanks very much.

Mr. MAASS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Peter Maass is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

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