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Kim Jong-Il: North Korea's Dear Leader Hardcover – January 29, 2004
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"The only comfort to be had from the new batch of Korea books is provided by Breen's biography of Kim Jong Il, which details a hedonistic streak as wide as the DMZ." (Atlantic Monthly, September 2004)
"...a breezy and gossipy account of the life of the Dear Leader, who has been variously portrayed in the West..." (Sunday Telegraph, 22 February 2004)
"...he interestingly draws on some psychological profiles and a few accounts of those that have met him [Kim Jong Il]..." (Spectator, 28 February 2004)
"...immensely knowledgeable..." (The Herald, Glasgow, 6 March 2004)
From the Inside Flap
North Korea has been described by experts as the most dangerous country in the world. The only Asian state on US President George W. Bush's famous "Axis of Evil", it stands threateningly outside the community of nations.
For most of the world, communism is now ancient history. But in North Korea, it is still very much alive. Indeed, the communist personality cult that still holds the country together is arguably more fanatical than any other before it.
The unlikely object of worship for the country's 23 million people is Kim Jong-il, the pudgy and reclusive son of former dictator, Kim Il-sung. Little is known about Kim in the fraternity of international leaders, except for one rather disturbing fact: under his leadership, his country has become the first to withdraw from the international system of controls on nuclear weapons, which has put Kim Jong-il on a collision course with the United States.
What makes this especially remarkable and worrying is that this country with aspirations to become a nuclear power, has all but collapsed economically. Its people are so impoverished and malno urished that they are, on average, several inches shorter and many pounds lighter than people of the same age living across the demilitarized border in rival South Korea.
Kim Jong-il is the one fat man in the whole country.
How long can he continue in power? What stops his regime from collapsing politically? Will his reign end in nuclear warfare or will he go quietly? Or will he surprise us all and start true reconciliation between the two halves of the Korean peninsular? The answers, Michael Breen argues in this fascinating and colourful portrait, all lie with Kim Jong-il.
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Top Customer Reviews
Access to NK is well controlled, and highly fettered; much of Breen's book is based on testimony of NK defectors to the South and conversations with other visitors to the state. Breen has never interviewed the Dear Leader, (although he did meet the Great Leader and relates that he felt that the GL must have been struggling with flatulence!) journalists, especially foreign journalists, being treated with suspicion in North Korea. So in this respect, there is nothing really substantial to the book, and Breen has merely gathered and compiled a series of anecdotes and known facts about the Dear Leader, and added his interpretation of the man. However, I would stress that the lack of hard facts reflect more on the subject of the book, than the author: Breen literally does not have much to work with.
Breen discusses Kim Jong-il's early upbringing, quoting from school reports supposedly cited in official books about the Dear Leader. What rapidly comes through from the quotes that Breen uses, much (or all) of the state's writings about its leader smacks of brownnosing and trying to put a positive spin on events.
The section about Kim Jong-il's adult life is much more based on hearsay - as Breen acknowledges, there are large sections of the Dear Leader's life about which very little is known. It is known that Kim Jong-il integrated himself to his father, although always remaining in the background, even for a time after his father's death in 1994. Even then, Kim Jong-il did not take his father's title as the Great Leader, instead preferring to use the Dear Leader, playing the dutiful son to the end.
As well as relying to an extent on hearsay, Breen also uses the Communist state's own writings - it transpires that the Dear Leader is quite a prodigious author. Although the Dear Leader probably didn't intend it that way, considerable mirth can be found in his works which are quoted by Breen, which cover topics such as movie making (Kim Jong-il is such a movie buff, that as Breen relates, he organized the kidnapping of a prominent South Korean director and his actress ex-wife) and journalism. Breen does at times go overboard in ridiculing the Dear Leader - comments about the "big hair" are rife throughout the book.
"Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader" is not just a biography, but is also a commentary about North Korea, and how the population and military accepts his, and his father's, leadership of the country despite the dire state in which the average North Korean citizen lives. Despite numerous famines, and despite (or because of) the majority of North Korea's resources being channeled towards the military, the Dear Leader continues to have a firm grip on power. However, there are encouraging signs of increasing warmth towards the South, particularly as South Korea continue to increase their investments in North Korea, although this could be seen as a cynical move, giving the need for cold hard cash in this cash strapped country.
Although not a substantial book, and light on hard facts (through no fault of the author), I would still recommend this book for those interested in North Korea and its leader, especially for those who shy away from the heavier, drier books out there.
For the best information on North Korea and its people, "North Korea: Through the Looking Glass" by Kong Dan Oh is probably still the best book to read.
I agree with the review who did not like the "Is Kim Jong-Il evil?" chapter. It seemed like filler at one point. I also felt that the end of the book lacked some of the witty writing I found in the very well done introductory part.
All in all an enjoyable read- worth the cash for a few insights into a fascinating (but disturbing character).
It also means that the biography has limitations, for it is forced to rely on the research and thinking of the author. Breen is one of the few westerners who live in the area (South Korea, in his case) and has often visited North Korea as a journalist in recent years. He has become a management consultant to companies dealing with this fanatically communist nation.
In his preface, Breen warns that North Korea has become what one U.S. diplomat “dubbed an intelligence black-hole.” “Information and mobility are so restricted that local citizens don’t know what’s going on outside and no-one knows what’s going on inside.”
Breen’s objective is to fill the gap. His chapter headings describe his direction: Going Nuclear; Is Kim Jong-il Evil?; Country of the Lie; Collision Course; and so on. His relatively short selected bibliography includes translations, publications in Korean, and an unpublished manuscript.
Time after time, Breen refers to the mysterious in a cultural belief, political situation, or traditional attitude he confronted in North Korea. Sometimes he attempts to analyze it, sometimes not. What is most helpful to the outsider is to recognize it and try to act accordingly.
Breen emphasizes linguistic differences. However, Dear Leader, Dear Educator—the constant use of the phrase, as critics of the book may point out, misleads readers, for the expression is false and numbing to the western mind. However, in North Korea it is probably otherwise, habitual and complimentary.
The author diminishes the strength of his argumentation by the occasional employment of lightly insulting adjectives in an apparent effort to be light or humorous. For example, he calls one Kim account a “wee fib.” No doubt, the difficulty of locating exact facts and figures results in the attribution of some as “estimates,” “beliefs,” or “according to one study.”
Regardless of reaction to and agreement or disagreement with Breen’s psychoanalysis, Kim Jong-il is topical and adds to the limited data about an almost unknown country. It helps explain why, seemingly almost suddenly, ability to produce nuclear weaponry sends shivers through both nearby and distant spines.
Robert A. Lincoln, a retired officer of the U.S. Foreign Service, lived in northern Virginia.