Inside Kim Jong Il’s Eerie Authoritarian World

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KCNA / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, far right, and his son Kim Jong Un, far left, salute as they watch a military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square on Sept. 9, 2011

To understand just how hard it is for the Obama Administration or anyone else to predict what the death of Kim Jong Il will bring to North Korea, it helps to understand just what a backward, out-of-touch place that country is. Having raided my mid-’90s notes to flesh out Jim Jackson’s excellent obituary of Vaclav Havel for TIME yesterday, I reviewed this morning my October 2000 notes from Secretary Madeleine Albright’s exploratory visit to Pyongyang, during which I was a pool reporter. The visit was the first, and only, by a U.S. Secretary of State, and was intended to test signs of diplomatic outreach by Kim as President Bill Clinton prepared to leave office.

Albright’s first official stop after landing at the seemingly abandoned airport was fitting: the mausoleum of Kim Jong Il’s father Kim Il Sung, who had been embalmed and put on display (like Mao, Lenin and Stalin) after his 1994 death. Kim the elder’s arrested decay replicated the state of his country: frozen in time and sustained only by extraordinary intervention. A famine immediately after Kim Il Sung’s death killed more than 1 million people just as Kim Jong Il was consolidating power. Poverty of the most abject sort still gripped the country five years later, with peasants using centuries-old technology for farming. Electricity and indoor plumbing were scarce. Even the capital city was beset with deprivation: breaking away from my minder’s tour of the monuments to Kim Il Sung’s heroism, I wandered into a public park and found a hungry man boiling a dead dog in an aluminum pot over an open fire.

You would not have known the state of the country from the “100 Flowers Blooming” guest house where Albright met Kim. In preparation for the meeting, the pool reporters were told to avoid any quick movements in the Dear Leader’s presence, not ask any questions unless Kim addressed us and under no circumstances stray from our minders. They walked us down a long corridor framed by thick bright-lime-green marble columns that led to enormous wood doors that opened onto a foyer with a large window facing a lake. An enormous, awful mural opposite the entryway depicted a stormy, frothing sea crashing against striated rocks while rotund seagulls winged overhead.

The Dear Leader’s arrival was signaled by the hurried entrance of half a dozen men in dark suits carrying not weapons but antique Variflex movie cameras and handheld spot lamps. We took the group to be the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s equivalent of the media — a personal entourage of filmmakers who accompanied the Dear Leader to record his every move. And indeed, as the massive doors began to open, the filmmakers lit their lamps and began filming to catch his entrance.

Kim was a short man with a half sphere of a potbelly beneath his trademark zip-front green windbreaker and slacks. His hair was thinning but still admirably vertical. His shoes were well shined and formed pointy, equilateral triangles beneath his ill-fitting but well-creased trousers. His skin was pallid and his eyes were slightly puffy. Kim strode over to Albright, shook her hand, exchanged brief pleasantries and then shook hands with her staff. Kim and Albright then walked stiffly to a meeting room with mustard-colored carpet and massive upholstered furniture and sat down for their diplomatic exchange.

After two hours, Albright and Kim emerged, all smiles, and headed down the hall toward the entrance amid the clatter of the Variflexes that trailed them like giant bugs. Working to make conversation as they passed a nook filled with orchids and two cages containing parakeets, Albright said, “It’s so beautiful.” The Dear Leader said, “President Jiang Zemin [of China] stayed here.” Albright said, “You have many, many visitors.” Kim said, “But I think the Americans are deserving more frequent visits.” After walking Albright to the door and saying he would see her soon, Kim climbed into his Mercedes limo and sped off.

While Clinton was eager for a diplomatic win to seal his legacy in the last months of his term, the two-hour meeting produced no sufficiently tangible offers for Albright to recommend making negotiating concessions to Kim or grant him his real wish: a Clinton visit to the country. The meeting had been more for show than substance. But if Kim’s behind-the-scenes theatrics were remarkable, they were nothing compared to the public show Kim put on to exploit Albright’s visit for domestic consumption.

After the meeting, Albright briefed her staff and then climbed into her motorcade to drive through the deserted city to an enormous stadium by the river. As we headed into the stadium’s entrance tunnel, one of Albright’s diplomatic security-service agents met us and said quietly, “Hold on to your asses, ’cause you won’t believe this.” Ahead, we could see that the stadium was full but deadly silent.

We emerged into the stadium just as the Dear Leader did from another entrance. As if a switch had been flipped, the 100,000 people filling the place let out a uniform and sustained roar. In every direction blue-suited party members clapped and shouted. Costumed performers danced and sang and waved colored pom-poms, fireworks exploded overhead and the Dear Leader waved. As he and Albright sat on the would-be 50-yard line, the roar died, the party members sat and we all gawked.

The scene was ineffably eerie and sad, but the eeriest and saddest part was the mechanized performance of tens of thousands of would-be spectators across from us. Technologically or financially incapable of building the massive TV screens used in stadiums in the industrialized world, Kim had come up with an authoritarian equivalent. Filling the stand opposite him were some 20,000 people, each holding over their head a book of colored sheets of paper. With perfect synchronization, each human pixel would flip a page in their book on command, producing enormous, high-resolution images of launching missiles, waving grain and happy, cavorting peasants. The resulting animation was so precise that my colleague from USA Today, sitting on my right, mistook it for an actual stadium-size video screen and only realized otherwise when I explained to her what was happening.

Predicting what change will look like in such a nightmarish, totalitarian world is, I imagine, going to be hard for even the most experienced North Korea experts.