Read This, Not That: An Unknowable Man
In this obituary for the New York Times, David Sanger profiles the mysterious, strange, and ruthless Kim Jong-il, a dictator who played devilish games of power with the West while his own country slipped further and further into decay.
He came to power after the death in 1994 of his father, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder. His inheritance was an impoverished country with an uncertain place in a post-cold-war era. He played his one card, his nuclear weapons program, brilliantly, first defying efforts by the administration of George W. Bush to push his country over the brink, then exploiting America’s distraction with the war in Iraq to harvest enough nuclear fuel from his main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to produce the fuel for six to eight weapons.
Throughout, he remained an unknowable figure. Everything about him was guesswork, from the exact date and place of his birth to the mythologized events of his rise in a country formed by the hasty division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II.
North Koreans heard about him only as their “peerless leader” and “the great successor to the revolutionary cause.” His portrait hangs beside that of his father, Kim Il-sung, in every North Korean household and building. Towers, banners and even rock faces across the country bear slogans praising him.