Hanging Out with Kim Jong-il

Like many in the insulated west, I've long been fascinated by North Korea, what life is like in there, and what will happen to the peninsula after the walls come down. (Of course, I'm half a world away, so I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea. Life inside the country, I suspect, is beyond rough and might get even worse in the first years of inevitable reunification.) I've read extensively on the country, enough so that I almost understand the concept of juche. And I've explored the country a bit in my fiction. My novel-in-progress has a sequence in which an over-the-hill rocker is invited to perform a goodwill concert in Pyongyang, although I'm not sure the subplot it's part of will earn space in the final draft. My hometown website boston.com (disclosure: I used to consult for 'em) has a terrific feature called The Big Picture that tells news stories in photographs. A year and change ago, the section ran a gripping Recent scenes from North Korea, a collection of 32 photos, all taken in 2008, some from wire services, some from freelancer Eric Lafforgue's then-recent trip, some shot inside the nation, some shot across the border. And now you can see On the Spot with Kim Jong-il, 31 photos from North Korea's state-run "news" agency, showing Dear Leader, usually in a parka, inspecting various industrial facilities. It's an astonishing series of portraits of a man and a culture disconnected from reality, surveying an empire that does not exist.


  1. His body language is chilling. You can tell in each situation he’s convinced he’s the expert. He’s paying close attention, ready to correct any errors that he discovers. What a fool. What a monster.

  2. Notice the frames of his glasses in picture number 10? It looks like the photo was altered somehow.

    Photoshop disaster, or secret message?

    They look normal from every other shot you can see the left side of his head.

  3. There is nothing amusing of fascinating about Kim Jong-Il. He is a power-drunk megalomaniac that made Saddam and his ilk look like Mother Teresa.

    “I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea.” No, you don’t. And neither do your friends and allies and Asia who have to live with him as a next door neighbor.

    1. Yeah! How dare he have any intellectual curiosity or interest about people in another country.

      1. Oh good gravy. Of course I’m not saying he isn’t allowed to be interested… My wording may have been too terse.

        Just to clarify, what I mean is a country with ICBMs (even clunky ones) and Nukes (even questionable ones) should not be taken lightly – especially when they are within conventional artillery range of Seoul and regularly lob missiles over the heads of the Japanese, a fairly large trading partner of the west.

        Just because you don’t live in the same hemisphere as the DPRK doesn’t mean you have the luxury of taking them lightly.

        As Snoop would say, “I ain’t tellin’ though… I’m just sayin’!”

  4. Also, Kim suffers from a circle of military (mostly Army) leaders who benefit from the awful, almost anti-human DPRK system and who do not want him to generate reforms (even if he wants to). They’d lose the good life. At the end of the day, Kim is propelled around North Korea’s stage, like a kabuki puppet, regardless of what he thinks of his god-like (and manufactured) past and presence.

  5. The first few paragraphs of the juche definition sound an awful lot like modern western conservatism.

  6. I really love Guy Delisle’s comic book Pyongyang. But I don’t think it’s that poetic there.

    1. Precisely. Right now, the South is propping up Kim’s regime, with various joint economic schemes. South Korea has learned from Germany that reunification is going to severely impact their economy.

    1. Ugh. The Americans seemed so snide and condescending towards the North Korean guides in that VBS documentary. That’s actually pretty counter-productive. Although obviously guides are vetted on their loyalty to the regime, some journalists have actually gotten their guides to open up some and venture minor criticisms of the government. But if the Westerners make it clear that they think their guides are deluded cultists, they are just going to get defensive.

      1. They are deluded cultist. Actually, the sad thing is that they are not always deluded. I suggest picking up the book Nothing to Envy. It has a few stories from North Koreans who eventually fled to South Korea via China. It is pretty sick and horrifying. If there is one nation in this world that you can feel completely justified looking down on with unabashed contempt, it is North Korea. You literally can’t find a more hellish spot on Earth. Even lawless impoverished areas filled with child soldiers in other parts of the world, can’t begin to compete with the sick, deliberate, mass scale horror that the North Korean government inflicts upon its own people.

        1. I have read “Nothing to Envy”. Not bad, but the author has no direct experience of living in North Korea and who is interviewing the dissidents who hated it enough to risk their lives leaving it. But I’ve also read Andrei Lankov’s “North of the DMZ”, Andrew Holloway’s “A Year in Pyongyang”, and Michael Harrold’s “Comrades and Strangers”. These Westerners (well, Lankov is Russian) lived in North Korea themselves and have a less cartoonish image of the country. It’s not a nice place to be sure, but it’s not all starvation and oppression just like Africa isn’t just famines and genocide. It’s basically a poorer version of the former Communist countries of Europe.

  7. why do you refer to the west as ‘insulated’? it seems to me that just the opposite is the case. n. korea is insulated, and we are fascinated with it because we can’t see over its walls. in fact, it is one of the few places in the world that is this way. surely this is the source of our interest, not the other way around.


  8. In the last photo, it looks to me like the seated individuals are using computers without any input devices.

  9. I’m reading about Juche for the first time, and I am astounded. There is mass indoctrination on a national level… and a game plan set into motion to make sure that the indoctrination is entrenched forever.

    These people will not seek out the larger world. They are entrenched in a mindset that places them atop a very tall mountain.

    (Sound familiar?)

    1. Yes, that particular mindset reminds of pre-WWII Japan. The main difference being that they had the industrial base needed to support imperialism. The Dear Leader’s People’s Most Democractic Beloved Homeland Of Perfection is very busy running their little theater. They won’t be invading any other countries.

  10. The west is insulated, and you’re fascinated with PDRK. Is that supposed to be “funny” or “ironic?”

  11. For a really good propaganda series, I suggest The Four Seasons of Pyonyang:

    It almost makes me want to live there.
    There’s an entire documentary series the North Korean government made, which, is pretty interesting.
    They really make it look like a futuristic workers paradise.

  12. What average citizen of a developed country ought to understand is that the propaganda is _all_ NK people know, that is what they are taught in school, that is what radio and TV provides, etc. Food and privileges distribution further reinforces the propaganda. Hence, (most of them) do not see anything wrong with what they do. I think they even enjoy the “games” and all that work they have to put in this show, that is entertainment at their level of reference.
    I grew up in socialist Poland so I know a _little_ bit how that works. And yes, the regime will fall and the likely cause would be one too many hardships endured by NK people, and than it will snowball…I’m just saying….

    1. Good job Cowicide. How many people have made it, or were part of, the middle class in this country during the last 50 years? And how many have done so in NKorea during Kim Jong Il’s rule? You hate the US so much you’ll conveniently equate two countries that, in terms of economic output and personal wealth, differ by the millions. And you’ll ignore all the good that was done to make that possible.

      1. Good job Cowicide … You hate the US … you’ll ignore all the good …

        I’ll reiterate my point. We Americans shouldn’t be on such high horses as to completely laugh off N. Korea.

        Never said I hated the U.S.

  13. It’s weird looking at that next to the slideshow of “Pictures of Obama feigning interest in mundane things” that was on here earlier in March.
    They’re so similar, and yet also different.Just try looking at each in the mindset of the other, the meaning of each picture is really biased by it.
    Is his body language “chilling” or just feigning interest in a something that he doesn’t really want to have to look at. I myself don’t see anything especially worse than Obama in most of the pictures.

    Just compare the two sets, so many are similar.

  14. I imagine the glasses are covering up evidence of his stroke, as you can see that he almost entirely favors his right hand.

  15. Hmmm, something else I found curious here – did you notice the copyright on most of the images (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)? How on Earth the “Getty Private Ownership Of All The Images That Will Ever Exist Empire” got to represent/collect for “North Korean People’s (I guesss) Press Agency”?

  16. There is nothing amusing of fascinating about Kim Jong-Il. He is a power-drunk megalomaniac that made Saddam and his ilk look like Mother Teresa.
    “I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea.” No, you don’t. And neither do your friends and allies and Asia who have to live with him as a next door neighbor.

    I’d say there are millions of people in this world who are less scared of being bombed or shot by the PR,K than they are of Western armies…..just sayin’.

  17. Based on his facial expressions, he likes shoes, liquor and having construction workers kneel at his feet. Hmmm.

  18. I’ve always been fascinated at the regimes and conditions some people will defend in order to first focus criticism on the West and the U.S. You would think at some point they’d put their support for freedom and democracy ahead of their need to always criticize the West, and some do, but a lot don’t. “Um, yes, there are problems with the regime of [whatever bloodthirsty despot], but remember that the Americans involved can come off as arrogant.”

  19. Am I the only one fascinated by the overly-saturated photographs (red is clipping in many of the images) and the apparent use of off-camera flash in some, but not all, of the photos?

  20. If a concern troll wants you to be more worried about something, what do you call someone who thinks you should be more angry about something? An outrage troll?

  21. “Like many in the insulated west, I’ve long been fascinated by North Korea”
    How much irony fail is floating around the comments section? that opening was brilliant!

  22. re: Guy Delisles’ books – Pyongyang and Shenzhen are both excellent, and much better than Burma.h

  23. Part one of a frankly fascinating 3 part series in which some less than reverent American tourists get access to NK with a video camera. Well worth the watch.


    I know I registered just to post this but I’m not affiliated in any way, I found this on Digg a couple of weeks back and thought it worthy of sharing. If I’ve breached protocol, well, I dare say my punishment will be less severe than it would be for a faux-pas in Pyongyang.

  24. Guy Delisles “Pyongyang”is quite excellent indeed.
    Anyone else noticed the Dear Leader is always wearing gloves, he only shows his hands when he is handling food and the palms of his hands look kind of dry, like neurodermitis.
    Reunification is going to be a lot more difficult than in Germany, because of all the extreme indoctrination. In Eastern Germany some people could (illegally) watch West German TV stations and they had some access to not state controlled information, so they had at least some grasp on the outside world plus there really was some awareness that the system in the GDR was wrong, plus the military hadn’t quite so hard a grip on the country – as far as I can see, this will take a long time to take root in North Korea and if reunification comes faster, there will be blood.

    1. Only if you’re pronouncing it “doo-chay”, which would probably confirm your membership in the group in question…

      1. …Obviously you’ve never had a French douche.

        Anyway, Mr. Serious – it was more a commentary on why the broad concept of Juche seems laughable in the face of reality.

        Lighten up, bro.

  25. Someone call the Guinness Book of World records; I think we’ve just found the world’s largest Caption Competition!

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