In some ways, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is similar to Michael Corleone in The Godfather III. And drawing this comparison is none other than someone who has observed him closely, former national security ambassador to South Korea, Chung Min Lee. In the inside-access special, North Korea: Inside The Mind Of A Dictator that will premiere on National Geographic, Lee talks about how, just like Michael who wants to step out of the shadows of a mafia regime he has inherited, with a legitimate business, Kim Jong-un is also torn between wanting to make North Korea a "legitimate" country and not wanting to lose the iron grip he has on his rogue state. He is young, hard-to-read and sitting on unbridled power, as the third member in the Kim dynasty of dictatorship. He is also believed to have killed his brother.
The two-hour documentary special from the house of 72 Films unfolds a little bit like a thriller. And that's hardly a gimmick, because this story has everything from a mafia regime of guns and drugs, counterfeit currency, to perfectly planned murders, spy network and strange childhoods and sinister minds. The series opens at the 10th year of Kim Jong-un's rule, when he's restless about the status quo and "showing signs of modernizing", by making public appearances with his wife, the first lady of North Korea and meeting other world leaders. But no matter how "modern" he wants to be, or appear, he still must take care of family business. And thus unfolds the story of how he executed his older half brother Kim Jong-Nam, who after being overlooked for succession, severed ties with the dynasty and later turned a CIA informant. How the dictator punishes his half-brother for this act of "treason", the way he saw it, can put bestselling crime fiction to shame. Through very grainy footage taken at the Malaysia airport where the assassination took place, the documentary reconstructs the course of events that led to a perfectly planned crime. We also get to hear Siti Aisyah, one of the accused "assassins" tell her own version in an interview, after serving a prison sentence for a crime that she had no idea she had committed.
And then we are taken further back in history, and given a glimpse of how such a sinister mind came to be. Growing up in a dynasty that is built and thrives literally underground, in a separate parallel geography of roads, railways and tunnels beat spy satellites, Kim Jun-un's childhood was bereft of outdoors and friends, except for bodyguards. Being brought up in this dysfunctional and secretive family played a big role in shaping up his psyche as a ruthless dictator. An interview with his former bodyguard Lee Young-Guk, who managed to escape North Korea, opens up a part of Kim Jong-un's childhood, where in Lee's words, "he was very lonely back then."
The pace of the documentary is a little jumpy, and does not follow a distinct chronology. But it does address several matters of interest in the rogue state of North Korea and its reclusive dictator. We are told about his intricate system of bodyguards who closely monitor his life, right from his security to what he eats to even carrying his portable toilet to prevent spies from getting a hold of his faeces and running lab tests on them to learn about his diseases. Some of this trivia might not be novel for those who are well-versed with North Korea, but for the rest, it's surely fascinating. The documentary also talks about Kim's aunt and uncle who fled from the country and the dynasty years ago and have since assumed phantom identities somewhere in the US. The makers explore a little about his marriage to his famous singer wife Ri Sol-ju who is described as the "Kate Middleton of North Korea" and how together they built an image of the aspirational couple.
The most interesting chapter in the documentary unfolds with the rise of the dictator's younger sister Kim Yo-Jong, perhaps the most quietly menacing member of the dynasty. Nicknamed the "sweet princess", she has been shown as the key voice of command that blew up the building in June 2020, where the two Koreas had held talks. The same Kim Yo-Jung had initiated peace talks with South Korea only two years ago, when she became the only member in the Kim family to visit enemy territory since the Korean war. The documentary, through expert voices, suggests in no uncertain terms that "sweet princess" has given several orders for execution. It also suggests that his sister was Kim Jung-un's way of resolving his dilemma. Now, with her playing bad cop with a sphinx-like smile plastered on her face, maintaining a tight grip on the North Korean way of doing things, he can go ahead and practice how to become the approachable, modern, leader of the people, engaging in photo-ops and other popular tactics that will gradually pull him out of his god-like tyrant avatar.
The second half of the docu-series Taking The World Stage is a progression from that. Kim Jung-un, now wanting to be seen as a "legitimate" world power, ventures into building diplomatic relations with the United States, its mortal enemy since the Korean war. We see footage of Trump saying in his speeches how Kim wrote him "beautiful letters" and they "fell in love". Behind Kim's move is his intention to get the international sanctions lifted so as to open up more legitimate trade routes for his nation and its people. When the forces finally meet at the first summit in Singapore, 2018, we see footage of what was touted as Kim's "coming out" on the world stage. John Bolton, national security advisor for Trump remembers Kim Jung-un as someone "fully in control", testing people " he had asked Trump: "what do you think of me?"
For the dictator, it's all about a show of raw power, where he casually regales his guest with stories of how he executed his uncle and displayed his head for everyone to see, over a steak dinner at the Vietnam summit in 2019. The episode circles around the talks between Trump and Kim, to get to the final leg of the documentary where the two leaders meet at the DMZ in 2019 and the historic moment when Trump became the first sitting US President to cross the demarcation line and set foot into the North Korean side. That impromptu meeting bore no results for either side and thereon we are treated to visuals of a vexed Kim Jung-un riding on a white horse on the snow-laden slopes of Mount Paektu on the Chinese-North Korean border, the birthplace of the Kim dynasty. The film ends with footage of a massive ballistic missile launching submarine being developed with an expert commenting on an ominous note about how North Korea can easily aim it at the US.
For its fairly detailed exploration of the key events in Kim Jung-un's regime, the ending feels abrupt and ambiguous. But when your subject matter is someone as sinister and secretive as this communist dictator, there is little opportunity to neatly tie up things. The chronology could certainly have been better, with a few more explainers on smaller details connecting the bigger events. But still, the documentary does manage to circle around the mind of the dictator, if not crawling "inside" it as the title claims.
Watch the trailer here