Kim Jong Il, who passed away Saturday from an apparent heart attack at the age of 69 — the official cause was “overwork” — was an old-school dictator, predictably unpredictable. The Post obituary said he excelled at keeping the world on edge. He was responsible for creating a nuclear North Korea, draining the country’s resources to pay for an extravagant military apparatus and consolidating his own cult of personality. He presided over a three-year famine that may have killed as many as 1 million of his citizens, while leading a life of ludicrous luxury himself.
But like the other dreadful, larger-than-life figures — Moammar Gaddafi, for one — he became known to Western audiences primarily as a caricature. When you exaggerate your own size, you do not choose the features that get emphasized. And in Kim Jong Il’s case the features that leaped out were not flattering. The distinctive bouffant. Those John Hinckley Jr. glasses. The greenish jumpsuits. The beige jumpsuits. We remember his appearance in “Team America: World Police” as a singing puppet.
Kim spent a reported 25 percent of his country’s budget on Korea’s nuclear military and ambitions while his people were starving. He showed no apparent remorse for anything.
But all we could talk about was how silly he looked in those shoes.
And he’s not the first ruler to have that problem. “Do you think Der Fuhrer could keep on being Der Fuhrer/If he saw what everybody else sees every time he looks in the muhrer?” quipped Ogden Nash.
It’s the Dictator’s New Clothes problem — instead of the emperor strolling about naked, the Dear Leader strolls out in taupe jumpsuits that do little for his body type and the state media proclaims him “fashion-forward.” With absolute power comes a diminution in the ability of anyone around you to tell you that the poncho doesn’t flatter, that the mustache is a poor choice, that those glasses make you look like an octogenarian or a serial killer or both.
He led a life that toed the line between tragedy and absurdist farce. What glimpses emerged, besides the notoriously unreliable official autobiography, which claimed that he was born on North Korea’s highest peak to the accompaniment of double rainbows and a magic swallow, were so bizarre as to be grotesque. He kidnapped a film star and her husband and forced them to make movies for years. He surrounded himself with a bevy of compliant women whom he claimed were his nurses and secretaries.
He was a great dictator, in the Charlie Chaplin sense. All the stories we heard were outrageous. Schoolchildren being forced to march in parades. His former bodyguard Lee Young Guk noted, “We all believed that Kim Jong Il was a genius from heaven. We had to recite this hundreds and thousands of times.” It’s the very thing Sacha Baron Cohen is aiming to caricature in his next movie. There’s a certain level of power where you lose any sense of how you appear to anyone but yourself, a hard-bought and deadly obliviousness — and it’s always gone straight to the Western funny bone.
It allowed Kim to penetrate our pop culture to a remarkable degree. There was a popular blog dedicated to Kim Jong Il looking at things. He showed up in movies and songs. True, we may not exactly have a grip on his identity — today, Lil Kim also shot to the top of the search charts, leading me to fear that some people have him confused with the rapper — but he was instantly recognizable to the point of being a Halloween costume.
As a culture and as a generation, we have difficulty taking anything seriously for too long. Perhaps dictatorship will never thrive here, because we can’t keep a straight face when asked to recite that someone is a Genius Sent From Heaven. You may take our freedoms, but you may never take our ability to pick apart your fashion choices. Dictators like Kim Jong Il depend for their livelihood on being taken seriously all the time — not even as human beings, but as a sort of demigods. So far, that doesn’t fly. And so, present us with a dictator and our first impulse is not to cower but to laugh. It is easy to find something to mock in these quaint mountains of id.
Kim was so ludicrous that it was easy to forget how dangerous he was. Some argued he wasn’t dangerous at all, that all his volatile menace was posturing to win aid which he could present as the tribute of foreign enemies. But Newsweek still pronounced him a modern-day Dr. Evil. Under his command, North Korea wound up on the Axis of Evil, and it was only in 2008 that it left the list of state sponsors of terror.
He was as volatile as he was menacing, as menacing as he was volatile. Was it a clever act? Kim Jong Il began as chief of the Department of Propaganda and Agitation in the early 1970s, where he worked to solidify the cult of his father, the Great Leader. Or was he simply prey to the worst indulgences of terrible power?
The Huffington Post has a retrospective of his fashion. It merits a look.
So farewell, Kim Jong Il, a man who achieved the fairly unique distinction of behaving like a fictional character while he lived. But if he’d been a character, everyone would have accused him of lacking verisimilitude. “People don’t actually act like that,” they murmured. That was what made him so frightening. Laughable, too.