The late North Korean leader was known around the world as much for his personality quirks as the tyranny of his rule. Here are a few of his main obsessions.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Kim Jong Il reportedly owned a collection of over 20,000 videotapes and authored a number of books on film theory. The James Bond films were reportedly among his favorites, though given his penchant for underground lairs and gray jumpsuits, it’s tempting to wonder whether he considered Ernst Stavro Blofeld the misunderstood tragic hero of the series. His cinephilia went as far as kidnapping a famed South Korean director and his actress wife in order to make the infamous 1985 socialist Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari.
In 2007, then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun presented Kim with a stack of DVDs of South Korean movies and television shows during a diplomatic visit. (Kim gave the South Korean leader 4 tons of mushrooms in return.)
Naturally, Kim didn’t exactly extend his love of world cinema to his people. DVDs from South Korea or elsewhere were prohibited in the North under Kim’s rule; police would often enforce the ban by cutting off power to apartment blocks and then going in to check what discs were stuck in citizens’ players. This year, the British soccer comedy Bend It Like Beckham became the first Western-made film ever shown on television.
The Lilliputian strongman was a huge hoops fan. He reportedly owned a video library of every game Michael Jordan ever played, as well as a basketball autographed by the Bulls legend, which was presented to him by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a rare period of détente with the United States. North Korea reportedly also developed its own scoring system for Kim’s favorite game, with “three points for a dunk, four points for a three-pointer that does not touch the rim and eight points for a basket scored in the final three seconds,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Kim dabbled in other sports as well. According to North Korea propaganda, Dear Leader shot 11 holes in one the first time he ever played golf. He may have started to believe his own hype during the 2010 World Cup when he reportedly instructed the North Korean team, which had admirably lost by only one goal to Brazil, to play more aggressively and position its defenders forward on the field. The team lost 7-0 to Portugal in its next game. Naturally, the players and coaches were blamed for the performance and subjected to a humiliating six-hour public dressing-down by North Korea’s sports minister. (They got lucky. In the past, teams and coaches that had displeased the government had been sent to labor camps.)
FOOD AND DRINK
As his pudgy appearance attested, Kim was a legendary gourmand. As always, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction in Pyongyang, but the leader reportedly liked to have his sashimi carved from live fish and preferred having his rice cooked “over wood that has been cut down from Mount Paektu, Korea’s sacred mountain,” according to the Telegraph. He sent couriers around the world to fetch him Danish bacon, Iranian caviar, and Thai mangos.
Kim had an odd affection for Austrian cuisine and once sent a delegation of his chefs to train and collect recipes in the land of Linzer torte. In the 1990s, he hired Italian pizza chefs to teach his cooks the proper art of olive placement. On a trip to China in this year, Kim reportedly walked out of the guesthouse at which he was staying and visited a local supermarket, where he asked the clerks for olive oil to make salad dressing.
Kim’s culinary excesses were particularly noteworthy given that his country was in a state of widespread famine through most of his rule. Not that Kim didn’t pay any attention to this problem — he once boasted of creating a new type of noodle packed with more protein to alleviate famine.
In a rare public-diplomacy effort, the North Korean government has started its own international restaurant chain in recent years, serving up kimchi and juche ideology to patrons throughout Asia.
PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES
Kim was famously afraid of flying, a phobia reportedly caused by a 1976 helicopter crash during which the future leader was seriously injured, a scar on his forehead a constant reminder. Given North Korea’s international isolation, it’s not as if he really had that many places to go, but when he did travel abroad, he preferred to do so in an armored train convoy that could be up to 90 cars long. Traveling only by train, he journeyed as far as Moscow in 2001 — 5,800 miles away.
Kim always traveled in style. When he visited China, his hosts would generally provide him with either a Maybach or the even more expensive Mercedes-Benz S 600 Pullman Guard limousine for his conveyance. Kim and his father both reportedly favored Mercedes vehicles back home as well.
Kim was famous for his trademark look, consisting generally of “a two-piece army suit, bouffant hairdo, Ray-ban sunglasses, and platform shoes,” according to ABC News. North Korea’s state media once went even more over the top than usual with a story reporting that Kim’s fashion was spreading throughout the world and quoting an unnamed French designer as saying, “The ‘Kim Jong-Il style fad’ that is rapidly spreading out to the world today is a very special fad that is unprecedented in human history.”
Apparently sensitive about his height, Kim’s platform shoes were reportedly about 6 inches high. Age eventually took its toll on his famously vertical hairdo, which was less dramatic in his later years.
Kim had an intense dislike for long hair on men and launched at least two different nationwide campaigns to have it wiped out.