IN HIS FIRST MEETING WITH FOREIGNERS since the death of his father, Kim II Sung, Kim Jong II stood in a receiving line near the glass coffin of the man who had wielded absolute power in North Korea for 46 years. As diplomats offered condolences, the heir apparent wiped away his tears. One witness described the pudgy, bespectacled son as “a normal man with a sad face.”
That may have been the first time the word “normal” has been used to describe Kim Jong II. Among his South Korean foes, he is rumored to be a sybaritic villain straight out of a Batman movie: a 52-year-old womanizer who annually recruits a “joy team” of schoolgirls to dance for him and imports European blonde beauties for his pleasure. Far worse, he is accused of masterminding such terrorist attacks as the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight, which killed 115 people—a disquieting suspicion given that North Korea is now believed to be developing nuclear weapons.
Kim’s official North Korean biography takes a rosier view, beginning as it does with a swallow swooping low over North Korea’s sacred Mount Paektu, heralding the arrival of “a prodigious general destined to rule the world.” The real Kim, whatever his talents and vices, may be somewhat more mundane, though reliable information is sketchy. According to the South Korea-based Institute of South-North Korea Studies, his nurses recall him “as a rough child who used to bite others.” His mother died when he was 7; he attended six different schools and was expelled from an East German military academy. He reportedly has a daughter by his first wife and a son and two daughters by his second, Kim Yong Suk, 47, a typist.
One North Korea expert cautions against painting Kim as “either the black prince of terror or a party animal.” Another observer, retired admiral Eugene Carrol of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, adds, “A whole lot of what we’re told about North Korea is what somebody wants to tell us based on their interests. His father tried to make a myth out of him. You can surmise it was because the reality is not that impressive.”