Inside the Sheer Bonkers Nuttiness of North Korea's Kim Dynasty

If they weren't a family of ruthlessly violent dictators, they'd be a reality television show.


Inside North Korea's Dynasty. National Geographic Channel. Sunday, November 11, 9 p.m.

Kim Jong Un
State Department/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Nobody in the world has better résumés than the Kim family, the guys who've been running North Korea the past seven decades or so. Consider the first page of the one for Kim Jong Un, current Big Boss. (We'll call him Kim 3 for short.)

Age 28: Becomes world's youngest chief of state. Age 30: Kills his uncle for suffering an attack of Resting Bitch Face during a standing ovation for Kim 3 by a big crowd of party hacks. Age 34: Kills his brother for saying, during a TV interview outside North Korea, that maybe the Kim dynasty had already lasted one Kim too many.

Or that of Kim Jong Il, aka Kim 2, who as a child had a full-time personal rice inspector to make sure that no misshapen grain reached his puffy lips. As a grown-up, he was so annoyed with the crummy nature of the North Korean cinema that he sent his underlings out to kidnap some Japanese filmmakers to spiff it up.

And who could forget Kim 1, the illustrious Kim Il Sung? When Kim 1's navy seized the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo in 1968 and imprisoned its crew for nearly a year, the American sailors learned firsthand from their captors that every mention of the Great Leader had to be preceded with the designation "fearless patriot, victorious, iron-willed genius commander and one of the outstanding international and working-class movement leaders, Marshal Kim Il Sung." The Pueblo crewmen drew the conclusion that if Kim 1 ever came near them, the smart thing to do would be to grab him and take him hostage because none of the North Koreans would dare to fire a bullet anywhere near him.

The Kim storyline, sometimes insanely funny and sometimes just plain insane, makes Inside North Korea's Dynasty irresistible. Its analysis is sometimes lightweight, its reporting sometimes sketchy. It is certainly not the best documentary ever made about North Korea. But when gazing in dumbfounded awe at its footage of Kim 3's miniskirted all-girl rock band prancing around on stage like a collection of nuclear-tipped Nancy Sinatras while a film of nuclear holocaust plays in the background … well, who cares?

Assembling an impressive library of archival clips to match its interviews with everybody from Kim 3's personal chef to one of Kim 2's assassins (she blew a South Korean airliner out of the sky; death toll, 115), Inside follows the two-thirds-of-a-century-and-counting course of what it calls "the world's first communist hereditary monarchy." (Those pikers, the Castro brothers, got started nearly a decade later.)

The weakest section of this four-part documentary miniseries is the opening hour or so devoted to Kim 1, the supposed leader of guerrilla warfare against the brutal Japan occupation of Korea during World War II. Inside presents this as the foundation for popular acclaim for Kim 1 that led to his becoming "the leader of a wounded people wishing to be led in a heroic fashion" when the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korea peninsula at the end of World War II.

Actually, Kim 1 had been born (and spent most of his life) in the Soviet Union, the son of exiled Korean communists, and was practically unknown in his own country. He was chosen as North Korean's fearless patriot etc. by an electorate numbering exactly one, Joseph Stalin, who was impressed not by Kim 1's dubious military skills but his abject fealty to the Soviet leadership.

And any North Koreans who were expecting heroic leadership to salve their wounds were quickly disabused of the idea. Kim 1's first substantial policy initiative was to invade the South, launching a war that resulted in a million or more North Korean deaths and a countryside flattened by American bombs.

Once the documentary gets past its puny and airheaded attempts to present Kim 1 as some sort of authentic popular choice, though, it blossoms like a malificently funny nightflower.

Kim 1 had turned North Korea into a diplomatic pariah with his regular and spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to murder South Korean presidents. (He managed to bag 21 bystanders in a bombing in Rangoon in 1983, but missed the president, who was stuck in traffic. Man, where's Jerry Brown when you need him?) With the country's embassies around the world mostly sitting around idle, Kim 2 promptly put them to work illegally copying Western films—especially James Bond flicks, his faves—for his personal collection.

Then there were Kim 2's legendary parties, at which he chugged shots of Cognac, directing impromptu marriages, divorces, and all-female boxing matches among his guests. To prepare for the parties, his chef traveled to Iran for caviar, Prague for beer, France for Cognac, Japan for sushi, and of course Beijing for the piece de resistance, McDonald's hamburgers.

These shopping trips might have been an embarrassment to a regime less resolutely devoted to scientific socialist economic principles, for North Korea was in the middle of an epic famine that took an estimated half a million lives. "You could see bodies in front of railway stations, the entrance to markets, basically everywhere," recalls one defector interviewed in Inside. "In the end, nobody cared. They died without being noticed."

That might be, at least in part, because those who did show signs of caring didn't fare well. A steel mill that was losing 100 employees a day to starvation sold some of its output to feed them; when Kim 2's auditors discovered the off-the-books operation, they had the mill's eight top managers executed and sent tanks to crush—literally—a protest sit-in by workers.

Kim 3 shared his father's passion for Western films—after he saw In the Line of Fire, a Clint Eastwood movie about the Secret Service in which agents jogged alongside a presidential limo, he promptly ordered his security detail to do the same—but he was even crazier about American basketball.

He even brought former NBA player Dennis Rodman, whose passions for tattoos, piercings, and wedding dresses make him almost weird enough to be one of the Kims, to North Korea on a state visit. It was a convergence of the clueless. Kim 3 apparently thought Rodman could get him a government invitation to an NBA game in Madison Square Garden. Rodman, for his part, says he thought Pyongyang would be something like Las Vegas. "I was in for a really big surprise," he concedes. Don't be embarrassed, Dennis; many an American president has said the same about the Kims.