How Kim Jong Il Became the Most Successful Dictator in Modern History

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North Korea's regime has come the closest of any society to what Orwell called, in 1984, the literal inability to conceive an unorthodox thought

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In this 1997 photo, Kim Jong Il looks out at a huge crowd during a ceremony to mark the third anniversary of the death of his father and North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung / AP

Kim Jong Il was a real-life Dr. Evil, intent on being taken seriously and yet almost unfailingly laughed at.

Strutting and pouf-haired, a self-described connoisseur of fine wine and cigars as well as (according to North Korea's ever-inventive media) a brilliant inventor who shot 38 under par his first time playing golf, Kim would have been outright comical had one been able to get past the fact that he brought death and untold misery to millions of people. And that he endangered many more around the world with his reckless pursuit of a nuclear bomb and other weapons. Kim, whose death at age 69 was announced by North Korean media on Sunday, was also the master of what may be the last truly totalitarian dictatorship on earth, one that is likely to continue now under his son Kim Jong Un, his apparent successor.


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Even as democracy seems to flourish anew elsewhere, the bizarre, undying dynasty of death and defiance that the Kim family has overseen for 65 years is likely to be affected only marginally by the passing of Kim Jong Il.

I first became convinced of the peculiar staying power of the North Korean regime 11 years ago, when I got to see Kim Jong Il up close. The date was October 22, 2000. Like much of what he did as North Korea's "Dear Leader," the encounter came as a big surprise. A group of us reporters were accompanying then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her historic visit to North Korea. As the sun set over Pyongyang, the capital of Kim's reclusive country, we were ushered into a giant circular stadium. We had been told we were about to see a "gymnastics show." The stadium was silent as we walked in, as if empty. But when we looked around, we saw that every seat was filled with what North Korean officials later said were more than 100,000 people. On the field, arrayed before us, were tens of thousands of performers dressed in brightly colored outfits and carrying red flags. They all just stood there, unmoving and unspeaking, like set pieces in a vast diorama.

Then, suddenly, in walked Albright and Kim Jong Il, the Mao-suited "Dear Leader" of this communist nation of 21 million people. Kim was an odd-looking fellow, pudgy and not much taller than the diminutive secretary, with his hair bouffed up to gain another inch or two. But you wouldn't know it from the reaction: Instantly the entire audience stood and erupted into torrential applause and shouts, every black-suited Korean craning toward Kim, each trying to out-clap the other. As one, the performers on the field surged forward, cheering and jumping up and down in front of him.

Just as suddenly, as if by the flick of a master switch, the cheering stopped and the lights dimmed. Kim and Albright sat down next to each other. What followed was at once awesome, somewhat terrifying, and by far superior to any halftime show at the Super Bowl. Demonstrating a degree of precise synchronization that would have made any Broadway choreographer envious, some 100,000 acrobats and dancers performed for an hour themes from the 55-year history of their glorious "revolution" (which, in truth, was the Soviet installation of Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, in 1945). Thousands of legs and arms moved in near-perfect unison; hundreds of petite, rouge-cheeked girls no more than 7 or 8 years old did multiple handsprings to the tune of such numbers as "The Leader Will Always Be With Us" and "My Country Under the Sunshine of the Party." Acrobats slid along ropes hundreds of feet above the performers, or were catapulted across half the length of the stadium onto nets. Barely anyone missed a step.

At the far side of stadium, vast images of the great moments of the revolution flashed and shifted before us. It took only several minutes before we realized that this portion of the stadium consisted of what officials later said was another 50,000 people, each with a book of colored placards in his hands. By turning the placards in tight array on cue from a conductor, this multitudinous cast pulled off amazing trompe l'oeil feats. They created giant ocean waves and flashes of lightning in the "raging sea of difficulty" faced by the revolution. They depicted tractors plowing up fallow earth to defeat the 1997 famine, and a global map of the "54 occasions" that Kim Il Sung had to visit his erstwhile communist friends (all gone now) abroad. Thematically, it was ridiculous; pictorially, it was brilliant.

The show had been intended to impress upon Albright, the most senior American official ever to journey to Pyongyang, that communism was alive and well, if only in this lonely Asian outpost. It succeeded somewhat. "Only a totalitarian state could bring this off," I whispered to one of my companions, trying to make up in glibness what I lacked in comprehension.

I thought of that scene often in subsequent years as I heard U.S. officials predict that North Korea would soon go the way of other communist and totalitarian dictatorships. And I thought of it again on Sunday when the North Korean state media, reverent to the end, announced that Kim had died of a heart ailment on a train on Dec. 17 due to a "great mental and physical strain" during a "high intensity field inspection."

The West, somewhat amused by the efforts of the 5-foot-3 Kim to get its attention, kept waiting for him to be toppled. He was an appalling, immoral man who privately indulged in expensive cognac and cigars while his people starved; who once kidnapped South Korean movie celebrities so he could start his own film industry. In a secret meeting that George W. Bush had with Republican senators in 2002 -- reported by my then-Newsweek colleague, Howard Fineman -- the U.S. president called Kim a hateful "pygmy" who behaved like "a spoiled child at a dinner table." (After those remarks were reported, North Korean officials regularly complained to Washington-based Korea scholar Selig Harrison, who visited Pyongyang often: "How can we deal with you when your leader doesn't show us even a minimum of respect?") Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's often-errant deputy Defense Secretary, declared in 2004 that North Korea was "teetering on the edge of economic collapse" and suggested a freeze in aid would bring political collapse as well.

But there is a reason that hasn't happened -- and why it's not likely to happen soon, even now. There is, perhaps, no totalitarianism in the world that is as all-embracing as North Korea's. Something like it hasn't existed since Stalin died (and with him a personality cult very much like that which surrounds the Kims). I have spent time in other police states, but even in some of the most vicious of them, an undercurrent of dissent ran like a subterranean stream through the back rooms of restaurants, bars, and private meeting rooms. Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi cab drivers would glance around when pressed and spit out their hatred of the dictator. Dissidents in Myanmar, during the worst of the crackdown, would whisper their fealty to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In Vietnam, Saigon residents would raise their eyebrows and snort at the central planners in the North. In China, after Mao's death, there was a reappraisal of his policies, and the Communist Party ultimately allowed that some elements of "Mao Zedong Thought," like the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the '50s or the Cultural Revolution of the '60s, had not been successful.

But in North Korea, long after Stalinism has become a yellowing chapter in the history books elsewhere -- and despite intermittent reports of a power struggle at the top -- there is little evidence that dissent among the public exists at all, even today. The effects of the Arab Spring seem to have reached China, and possibly Russia. But there are no reports of any democracy movement in North Korea. Very few people yet seem willing to question whether the Kim family dynasty might be to blame for an economic slide that took the North from parity with South Korea, as recently as the 1960s, to one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world and the death of hundreds of thousands of people from starvation.

It is too simplistic to attribute this mindset to a mere fear of repression or self-censorship. Yes, according to State Department human-rights reports and the few defectors to make it out of North Korea, there are gulags in remote areas for the wrong-thinking. But on the whole, there seems little in the way of independent thought to censor. One foreign resident of Pyongyang, when asked on our trip in 2000 if he had ever seen any evidence of dissent -- even over drinks with North Korean associates -- responded: "Never. Nothing." North Korea's regime has come the closest of any society to what Orwell called, in 1984, the literal inability to conceive an unorthodox thought. If one sets aside the fact that North Korea is an economic sinkhole, and that its freedom-loving enemies are crowding in upon it from every side, it may even be called the most successful totalitarianism in modern history.

The natural response of Americans has been to say that this must and will change. But that is to underestimate the peculiar staying power of North Korean totalitarianism. There is a reason why the regime of the Kims survives while, all around it, the Soviet bloc disintegrated and the Chinese opened up and reformed. The North Korean regime's ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance and ridiculed in the West. But to the North Korean elites, juche is still a powerfully intoxicating brew of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority, and utopian Marxism-Leninism. The party embodies all of these ideals -- nationalism, filial respect, utopia. Exploiting this confluence of philosophies and experiences, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il created "an impermeable and absolutist state that many have compared to a religious cult," wrote longtime Korea observer, Don Oberdorfer in his 1997 book, "The Two Koreas."

Hence it hasn't broken down, long after other regimes have, despite a smorgasbord of Western policies ranging from tough sanctions to occasional freezes in aid. George W. Bush started off with confrontation and ended up launching controversial diplomacy with North Korea that was disowned by his most hawkish supporters, including Vice President Dick Cheney. But that too failed to move Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also set a policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, refusing to offer any new incentives to Pyongyang in order to induce it to return to nuclear-disarmament talks.

That policy seemed to have had little more success than past ones. Things grew only more tense, including open hostilities between North and South Korea in 2010. In recent months, the U.S. has lurched back toward diplomacy, mostly secretly. Before Kim's death, Pyongyang and Washington were reportedly set to hold meetings in Beijing on Thursday to discuss a possible resumption of the long-suspended "six-party" talks on the North's nuclear weapons program.

But, sadly, these efforts are unlikely to make any headway as long as the North Korean regime remains in place, its character unchanged.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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