Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea for the last decade, has quite a bit in common with Michael Corleone, the mobster protagonist of The Godfather movies. He’s the leader of a family dynasty, one which he inherited from his father. He’s been known to profit from illicit criminal activity. Like Michael, he was chosen as successor from among his siblings, and also like Michael, he’s believed to have had his own brother assassinated.
Early on in North Korea: Inside the Mind of a Dictator, a new National Geographic documentary that debuts on that channel Monday night, former South Korean government official Chung Min Lee draws a less intuitive comparison between Kim and The Godfather: The North Korean leader, Lee says, is analogous to the older Michael Corleone in the third Godfather movie, when the lifelong Mafioso is looking to go legit and make the transition away from violent crime and towards respectable international business. But like Michael, that transition for Kim is a bit more complicated in practice than it was in theory.
Inside the Mind of a Dictator, which was originally scheduled to air in January but postponed at the last minute, hinges quite a bit on that tension, between Kim’s occasional gestures toward openness and modernization, and the regime’s character as a dictatorship with little political freedom, one ranked in a survey just this week as the least democratic nation on Earth. Because, as more than one expert interviewed says in the documentary, any moves towards freedom or openness would risk the Kim dynasty losing its grip on power.
The two-hour film, while it jumps all over the place in terms of subject matter and chronology, covers many topics of interest in those who follow goings-on in North Korea. The film was produced by the documentary outfit 72 Films.
Inside the Mind of a Dictator spends a large part of its early section exploring the bizarre murder of Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was assassinated in the Malaysia airport in 2017, by a pair of young women who appear to have been tricked into it in the belief that they were part of a YouTube prank show.
That murder, of course, was already depicted in last year’s documentary Assassins, and the NatGeo film covers much of the same ground and even speaking with some of the same people, such as journalist Anna Fifield and one of the accused assassins, Siti Aisyah. It’s billed as Aisyah’s “first time on television” telling her story, but she of course appeared in the theatrical/VOD film that was released last year.
The film also reveals that North Korea pulls in $2 billion a year from illicit gun and drug sales, and also shared the story, which has been reported before, that Kim travels with a portable toilet, so as not to allow his feces to fall into the hands of foreign intelligence services. And there’s some exploration of Kim’s marriage to Ri Sol-ju, described here as “the Kate Middleton of North Korea.”
The film includes information about Kim’s aunt and uncle, who defected from North Korea years ago and are living incognito somewhere in the Midwestern United States. Viewers learn that previous dictator Kim Jong-il once told a Russian ambassador after he was asked about his succession plans that his “sons are all idle blockheads.” His daughters, however, were considered more impressive.
This leads to the rise of the dictator’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, and the film puts forward the thesis that the dynasty has tried to solve its dilemma by having Kim Jong-un act like a statesman and make moves towards modernization, while his sister handles all of the more traditional dictator duties, such as—the film strongly implies—having people killed. She is showcased as the driving force behind the symbolic decision to blow up the building where the two Koreas had once held talks.
This leads into the film’s second half, called “Taking the World Stage,” which deals with both the nation’s nuclear aspirations and the regime’s Trump-era diplomatic process with the United States. The opening, viewers learn, came from a desire to get international sanctions lifted, with the belief that the nation’s poverty and shortages were not tenable.
Trump and Kim’s meeting in Singapore in June of 2018, viewers learn, is just the third time Kim had left North Korea since he took power. And viewers hear from John Bolton, then the National Security Adviser and later a vocal Trump critic, about his experience with the summit. Kim was “very much in control” when the two leaders met, Bolton said. Bolton, true to his reputation, says that “you have to consider the use of force” to prevent the country’s nuclearization.
The film, in a tonal departure from the rest of its segments, plays romantic saxophone music during this portion, in reference to Trump saying “we fell in love” and “he wrote me a beautiful letter.” Viewers also get to watch the memorable footage of the chaos that ensued when the two men met in the DMZ, and Trump and the press walked in a direction where the North Koreans didn’t want them to walk.
Very little is said about the coronavirus pandemic, and how North Korea has handled it, except for a brief mention at the end of the many challenges facing the country in the future. The film ends with footage of Kim speaking at last October’s military parade and the unveiling of the large missile. There’s also some discussion of North Korea’s development of a massive submarine that can carry ballistic missiles.
North Korea: Inside the Mind of a Dictator doesn’t offer much that isn’t known to those who follow North Korea closely, and the interviews with people like a CIA agent who operated within North Korea, an old classmate of Kim’s, and a longtime bodyguard of the Kim regime don’t provide much color of note. But nevertheless, the film does represent a worthwhile look at the Kim regime, its past and its future.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for the National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.