Psychology of a Dictator—Kim Jong Il’s Fears and Complexes

Fear of dogs, horses, enclosed spaces, and the occult. Foreign Policy highlighted an eclectic set of the phobias of some of the world’s most prominent leaders in an article on Tuesday entitled, “Profiles in Phobia.” In the midst of Kim Jong Il’s trip to China by armored personal train, the magazine pinpointed aerophobia as Kim’s very own Achilles’ heel.

According to “Kim Jong Il’s Popularity”, a book written by North Korean Foreign Minister Kang Suk Joo, “Kim Jong Il takes the train to feel closer to the people’s lifestyle.” Kim has even gone as far as Moscow by train due to his fear of flying, on a twenty-four day round trip from Pyongyang in 2002. However, the real reason for this choice of transportation is fear of terrorism and assassination attempts, a paranoia common to most dictators. This despite the fact that in April, 2004, Yongcheon Station, through which Kim’s armored train had just passed, exploded.

A dictator’s paranoia often leads to the use of numerous body doubles and strict security standards. One of Kim Jong Il’s former bodyguards, Lee Young Kook tells a story of six bodyguards being punished for their inattentiveness. Having mistakenly assumed that the passenger of an unmarked Mercedes Benz was Kim Jong Il, a bodyguard let the vehicle pass through the gate leading to Kim Jong Il’s office without stopping it for inspection. Kim Jong Il would not allow such negligence and demanded that the officer who saw the car through, as well as five others, receive nightly ideological instruction. Kim said that it was perfectly acceptable to stop his car to verify that the passenger was indeed him.

But Kim Jong Il’s peculiar psychology extends beyond concerns for personal safety to displays of arbitrary impulsiveness. Merely a few days after telling bodyguards it was alright to stop his car, Kim Jong Il had another bodyguard punished for trying to do just that. The body guard was also subjected to ideological instruction, this time for “not knowing Kim Jong Il’s car when he sees it.”

Jerrold Post, current professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and a former psychological profiler for the CIA, says Kim Jong Il displays “the core characteristics of the most dangerous personality disorder; malignant narcissism.” Post analyzes Kim as having been raised in “luxurious surroundings, the formative recipe for a narcissistic personality, with a grandiose self-concept and difficulties with empathy.”

This may be true, but for a dictator who has maintained a decades-long ironclad grip on his country, Kim Jong Il also has a somewhat surprising history of timidity and fear of the mundane.

Kim’s former private Russian tutor Kim Hyun Sik recounts an encounter with the young Kim Jong Il. According to Kim Hyun Sik, he was a “shy boy with puffy, red cheeks who responded meekly to each question I posed.” During the final speaking portion of the test, “he blushed and beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. Without ever boasting that he was the son of the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il patiently endured the exam.”

Kim Jong Il’s former personal chef Kenji Fujimoto describes an incident when Kim Jong Il was ill and needed a shot for the pain. Not wanting to go through it alone, he had five or six people working in the secretary’s office get the shot with him, despite their absence of symptoms.

One aspect of Kim Jong Il’s personal life that the foreign press likes to highlight is his “pleasure corps” of women, and his relations with several wives and mistresses. Even this is seen by some as a result of early psychological stresses such as an inferiority complex vis-à-vis his father and the early death of his biological mother Kim Jong Suk. A 1997 Russian documentary about Kim assessed that the loss of his mother at a young age contributed to his attraction to second wife Sung Hae Rim, who was five years his senior.

Analysis of the “Dear Leader’s” psychology runs the gamut from extreme narcissism to a deeply ingrained inferiority complex, but it is fair to say that all of these idiosyncrasies support his pursuit of personal pleasure and uncontested dictatorial rule. Former International Secretary of the Chosun Workers’ Party, Hwang Jang Yop has said, “Kim Il Sung gave the impression that he maintained dictatorship for the political benefits, but Kim Jong Il gives the impression that he enjoys the pleasure of dictatorship.”

As a postscript to this analysis, a Shinuiju source reported to The Daily NK in early April, before Kim headed for China, “A rumor that the General (Kim Jong Il) will visit China is circulating, so the whole city is quite strained. The authorities are being extremely cautious out of fear that another incident caused by rebellious elements such as the Yongcheon Station explosion could occur again.”

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