The Words of the Breen Family

Journalist Michael Breen examines life of Kim Jong-il

Kim Young-jin
December 28, 2011
Korea Times

Seasoned journalist Michael Breen has released an updated edition of his book "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader," a timely analysis that comes in the immediate aftermath of the late Stalinist ruler's death.

A longtime reporter and commentator who has visited the isolated, nuclear-armed state several times, Breen's in-depth examination comes as Pyongyang attempts to pass power to Kim's untested youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

Understanding the North's current situation, the author says, is impossible without piecing together the life story of the man responsible for leaving its people impoverished and a system "dumped onto the ash heap of history."

But this is easier said than done as the mercurial despot worked behind the scenes, rarely gave interviews and because his personal history was heavily embellished by Pyongyang's propaganda machine. This is further muddied by international caricatures that paint Kim as a maniacal, boozy figure.

Covering his precocious boyhood in a guerilla camp to his senior years hurriedly preparing the power handoff to his heir, Breen's new edition shows Kim to be more complex than glib perceptions and debunks common myths, all in immensely readable prose.

Breen, based in Seoul, addresses the fallacy that Kim was primed to inherit leadership of the country since his birth and outlines the path he took to power, beating out rivals by earning the trust of his father, country founder Kim Il-sung.

Kim was also "an artsy fellow" with a lifelong obsession for film? prompting him to kidnap a top South Korean filmmaker and his actress wife in a bid to improve his country's movies.

He lost his mother and brother at a young age and had to battle with relatives for power, experiences that likely took a hefty psychological toll. He had a temper but could make people feel at ease and was an active leader with a tendency to micromanage affairs.

Breen weaves extensive research, interviews with defectors and personal experiences to shed light on the harsh system Kim used to maintain power, including a sprawling political prisoner camp, a vile brand of race-based nationalism and a nuclear program that has Pyongyang on a collision course with the United States.

While the author employs his distinctive wit and personal anecdotes to make for engaging reading, he holds no illusions over the troubled state of affairs Kim left behind and sounds a warning call over the immense challenges ahead for Northeast Asia, to which Pyongyang remains a volatile, perplexing riddle.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the author writes, Kim must have known "the odds of going down as the leader whose removal marked the end of the communist state and the beginnings of a unified Korea are pretty high." As the North moves to secure its new leadership, observers in the South and around the world may be mulling those odds as well.

Breen arrived in Korea in 1982 from the United Kingdom as a correspondent for The Washington Times, The Guardian and other publications. He has written numerous works on both Koreas and is considered an authority on peninsular affairs. "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader" is available from John Wiley and Sons. 

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