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.

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.

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24 responses to “Inside the Sheer Bonkers Nuttiness of North Korea's Kim Dynasty


    This book is a bit dated, it was written in 2004. But for a history of North Korea under the Kims in the years leading up to that, it really can’t be beat. The author was a reporter in the Tokyo burea of the Baltimore Sun for like 20 years and wrote it based on a huge number of interviews he did with North Korean defectors.

    1. Excellent book. And while the site is batshit bonkers. Vice’s hidden camera documentaries inside N. Korea were quite interesting.

      “Nothing normal happens here ever”

    2. Interviewing defectors is not a good way to get accurate/balanced information. They are more likely to tell you what they think you want to hear.

  2. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

    1. If they were imbeciles they wouldn’t have been able to keep power that long. Ruthless insane motherfuckers for sure, but they’ve maintained power the whole time as well. Don’t underestimate them. They’ve outmaneuvered several US presidents.

      1. Right, it is only bonkers if you are viewing it from the outside. If you are the Dictator in power and want to keep that power and your life, it is the sensible thing to do.

  3. The DPRK considers Reason to be too crazy for a functioning state except for Virginia Postrel who they consider as being fuckingcrazyhot.

  4. With the country’s embassies wound 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.

    Kind of fitting, seeing as the whole damn family are basically real world Bond villains, so he probably identified with the villains

    I also hear Kim 2 was quite fond of Daffy Duck cartoons, which is also rather fitting.

  5. Castro brothers were barely hereditary; Raul was just as legitimate a revolutionary as Fidel, and Fidel kept on living for some time after handing over control to Raul.

    1. Don’t get in the way of a Miami-based ahistorical narrative.

  6. It’s too bad “sheer bonkers” has resulted in the horrific treatment and starvation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

    1. The starvation was caused by a Western-led blockade. I suppose you are blaming the starving masses in Yemen on something other than the blockade there too.

  7. The whole regime was based on lies and keeping the population uninformed, but strategies developed for survival of the famine means that even outside Pyongyang, people now know that NK is most definitely NOT the world’s greatest country; his daddy brought that on him.
    Now, the Kim power structure has only internal terrorism to keep an increasingly restive population in check. As was obvious by the end of the USSR, that will work until a certain number of the military decides otherwise. And as evidenced by the army guy who ran for it, even the military is no longer well fed.

    1. What evidence do you have of an “increasingly restive population”?

  8. My favorite Kim moment was when he sang that song about how “rone-ree” he feels in Team America: World Police?right after he dumps UN weapons inspector Hans Blix through a trap door.

    1. That was pretty funny.

  9. What is the point of vilifying North Korea and Kim now?

    For the US military-security complex, the point is obvious: Stop the peace process before it gets the boot from a united Korea. Obviously, National Geographic is working in the interest of the US foreign policy establishment (as a ‘geographic’ society based in the US, would).

    For the rest of US, it is pointless now. The US military inflicted horrible deaths and destruction on Korea during that war and may have been responsible for starting it (read Howard Buffet’s Wikipedia bio). South Korea, with close to 50x North Korea’s economy and twice its population, can afford to buy off the NK leadership to dissolve the DPRK so that NK can be absorbed into a united RoK – which would share a border with both Russia and China and be great for trade.

    But integration of SK’s and NK’s armed forces will be impeded if the US military is looking over their shoulders (and trying to thwart it). Vilifying North Korea, just as it’s finally doing something good, is a bad idea. I don’t have a television but, if I did, I wouldn’t waste time watching something that can only serve to block peace.

    1. You don’t need a television, you can watch it on the internet. If you don’t know what the internet is, it’s a series of tubes.

  10. I’m surprised the whole ‘bread and circuses’ aspect is missing. The parade held to welcome the visit of the South Korean president a couple weeks ago was breath takingly elaborate. If Trump were to receive such treatment, he’d likely consider it the high point of his presidency, or even his lifetime. The adulation is total. For all their faults, let it not be said that the North Koreans don’t know how to treat a celebrity.

  11. Am I the only 1 who, on seeing that hairdo, imagines chalking it like a pool cue?

  12. I think the author is confused about which Kim was born in the Soviet Union. It was Kim Jong Il, not Kim Il Sung.

    From Jong Il’s Wikipedia page:

    “Soviet records show that Kim was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim (Russian: ???? ????????? ???)[5][6][7] in 1941 in the village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk,[8] where his father, Kim Il-sung, commanded the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade,[9] made up of Chinese and Korean exiles.”

  13. Funny thing how this documentary series changed from “puny and airheaded attempts” to a fact filled romp. Maybe Miami-based tv reviewers should stick to the ever-popular-with-the-locals anti-communist/anti-Castro bloviation instead of trying to manage criticism of faux-historical documentaries.

  14. Reason is beating history to death,when there may be a new life emerging in NK. I think our own Dennis Rodman may have opened our chubby friend’s eyes to the glories of the free world. The Don has capitalized on that to make the earth just a little bit safer.

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