The late Kim Jong-Il will be remembered for a lot of things -- balance is not one of them. During his 69 or so years on Earth, North Korea's "dear leader" lived less as a world leader than he did a historical enigma, a caricature of a despotic dictator with an unpredictable, lavish and always unusual temperament. Eccentric is too common a word to describe it.
Some of Kim Jong-Il's idiosyncrasies are easy to make fun of. With his oversized glasses, squat figure and coiffed silver hair, he appeared cartoonish at times. In cartoons, he almost seemed more realistic. Reading the obituaries of Kim Jong-Il that had been written, filed and release within minutes of his death that catalog his qualities and his hobbies is akin to absurdist theater at times, mostly because of the juxtapositions that Kim Jong-Il created. However, now that Kim Jong-Il's live over, we have to wonder what his legacy will be. We've collected some of the more curious things we've learned about the North Korean dictator's lifestyle over the years. We're sure to learn more.
Kim Jong-Il ate extravagantly, counting sushi and shark's fin soup, a controversial delicacy, among his favorite meals, while developing a notorious reputation for letting his people starve. Writing under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef shared a number of fascinating, rare first-hand accounts of what the dictator's day-to-day life was like in The Atlantic. One could imagine that Kim Jong-Il enjoyed some quirky culinary treats, and "food" is a word with many definitions. Fujimoto writes about the aftermath of a horsing accident that the dictator suffered in 1992:
From that day, every evening at 10:00 P.M. for the next month, five or six of his administrative staff members and I would be injected with the same painkiller that Kim Jong Il was taking. He was afraid he would become addicted to it, and didn't want to be the only one.
In one of Fujimoto's books, he also described how Kim Jong-Il's eccentric taste sometimes trickled down to the people. From The New York Times's coverage of Fujimoto's memoirs:
"So I flew to Beijing, and went to McDonald's and bought a bag of hamburgers," the chef recounted. "Of course by the time I got back to Pyongyang, they were cold. So Kim Jong Il ate cold hamburgers." The experience may have prodded Kim to introduce hamburgers to the masses.
In 2000, he began a campaign to feed university students "gogigyeopbbang," which is Korean for "double bread with meat," also known as a hamburger.
Kim Jong-Il nurtured a taste for fine alcohol by keeping a "royal wine cellar," in Fujimoto's words, of over 10,000 bottles and reportedly spent up to $720,000 a year on Hennessey cognac. The average North Korean earns just $900 a year.
Last year, the thirsty despot bought up every single bottle of the Chateau Latour’s 2009 Les Forts de Latour, and (Update: Apparently, Kim Jong-Il did not buy up this vintage; a wine blog reported the news as an April 1 joke. As its very difficult to separate fact from fiction with all things Kim, the story was then reported as news, and the joke seems not to have been particularly well-received within the fine wine community.) According to a BBC profile, "He was seen draining 10 glasses of wine during his 2000 summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung."
The dictator that the West now knows as an anchor of the Axis of Evil Western owned 20,000 movies; the James Bond series and Rambo were among his favorites. He also liked touring his country, monitoring its progress, looking at things: paintings, produce, factories, tractors, tunnels, computers -- the list is endless. A sampling of other hobbies from The Times:
In a poor country where a prized possession is a used Japanese bicycle, the Kim clan enjoy the most expensive imported toys - Jet Skis, motorcycles, karaoke machines, NBA-regulation basketball courts. … The favored foreign chef [Fujimoto] freely admits to enjoying the high life - the gambling parties with bricks of $100 bills, the gourmet meals, the private screenings of the latest Hollywood movies and the company of Kim's charming team of young "pleasure girls."
And who could overlook the Arirang Mass Games, purportedly the largest show in the world, meant to be testament to North Korea's greatness:
In what's perhaps one of the more frustrating juxtapositions, Kim Jong-Il fed his dogs better than his people. This summer we pointed to the work of an undercover journalist who snuck into North Korea with a camera and recorded startling images of starving young children, digging through the trash to survive. In the dictator's compound, the situation was much different. From The Times, once again:
But inside the sealed world of Kim Jong Il, the Japanese chef recalled, the only time food shortages came up was when employees at a villa kennel were caught eating beef intended for Kim's pet dogs.
"Kim Jong Il ordered the kennel director to go to a labor camp for two years and the others for one year," he wrote in the new book. "Twenty kilograms of beef in the refrigerator every day must have been a great temptation to the workers who were never given beef."
What's unique to to the aura that is Kim Jong-Il is how much the North Korean people revered the leader, despite his lavish lifestyle and sometimes brutal rule. Whereas Muammar Qaddafi drove the Libyan people to revolt, the Kim Jong-Il's subjects loved him obsessively. (Of course, propaganda played a party.) Twitter showed us right away that even in death, Kim Jong-Il was a joke to much of the West. But to his own people, it can't be denied, there's nothing funny about the dear leader's passing. In fact, they're hysterical with grief:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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