North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died Saturday at age 69, was a questionable patron of the arts. He loved art, but went to extreme means to obtain it — kidnapping a director to make a film for him, hoarding American DVDs, commissioning artwork that the Wall Street Journal branded as “totalitarian kitsch.”
Dear Leader was obsessed with entertainment and culture, according to many reports. He owned more than 20,000 movies, favoring James Bond, monster movies, and anything starring Elizabeth Taylor. He was so much of a cinephile that he wrote a book, “On the Art of Cinema.” In an essay, “The Cinema and Directing,” he writes, “The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction.”
Kim’s movie obsession was also a sinister one: In 1978, he ordered the kidnapping of a famous South Korean film director, Shin Sang-ok, who was put to work making movies for North Korea. His films included “Pulgisari,” a communist “Godzilla,” and a drama that included the first on-screen kiss seen in the country. “Pulgisari,” is available on YouTube.
Film wasn’t Kim’s only cultural interest. He was said to have written six operas in two years. Another book, “Kim Jong Il on the Art of Opera,” details his interest in the art; the Amazon reviews have been taken over by parodists who wrote evaluations like, “I recommend this book unreservedly to anyone who is a fan of the arts, despotism, or state-sanctioned starvation, or, ideally, anyone who is a fan of all three.”
Kim’s interest in the visual arts consisted primarily of propaganda images of himself, like the one to the left.
Wall Street Journal features editor Eric Gibson wrote about the work Kim commissioned for his palace, visible in photos with former President Bill Clinton, who visited the leader to secure the release of two American journalists in 2009. A mural in the background of the picture depicted “Two opposing visions of nature ... a benign one (the luminosity and fluttering birds), and an angry, violent one (the heaving seas and crashing waves),” wrote Gibson. “The message of the painting, located in what appears to be the presidential palace, is a simple one: Kim Jong Il’s regime as a force of nature.”
Kim was also a dance aficionado, staging massive festivals with thousands of dancers and gymnasts in patriotic garb. The dancers from one recent Arirang Festival, founded to celebrate the birthday of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, were set against the backdrop of a giant human mosaic, formed by thousands of performers holding up colored tiles. You can see them as they change the picture in a close-up about one minute into the video below.
In another video, dancers in military garb perform in front of a mosaic portrait of Kim Il-sung.
Children also perform acrobatic feats, like riding unicycles.
Finally, even military marches in North Korea are tinged with a hint of dance performance.