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'Inside the Mind of a Dictator' Chronicles the Life and Reign – So Far – of Kim Jong-un
February 15, 2021  | By David Hinckley

A new documentary on Kim Jong-un suggests the North Korean supreme commander faces a dilemma, not unlike that faced by Al Pacino's Michael Corleone in Godfather II.

Michael wanted to turn the family business legitimate by getting out of the shadowy, brutal, and illegal Mob enterprises. He wanted the Corleone family to be seen by the world as still successful and now respectable corporate citizens.

The only problem was, he couldn't cut all his underworld ties and operations because that's where the family business got its success.

Inside the Mind of a Dictator, a two-hour special that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Nat Geo, draws an extensive parallel to the situation in which Kim, the third generation of his family to run North Korea, finds himself.

He's dying to become a real player, a respected statesman seen as a peer of other important government leaders, and not just the dictator of a backward nation who keeps his power by repression and intimidation.

That's why it was such a coup for Kim to meet a couple of years ago with Donald Trump, then president of the United States. On stage with Trump, he became the visual equal of the most powerful president in the world. The fact Trump said nice things about him and treated him as a fellow world leader fulfilled Kim's fondest dreams.

That he and Trump otherwise had a frenemy relationship was less encouraging but did not diminish the new higher profile Kim saw himself as having attained.

Since Kim's public image in America is that he's a loose cannon who likes to flaunt his nuclear missile capability and has an unusual friendship with basketball's odd-man Dennis Rodman, Mind of a Dictator wisely backs things up and presents, essentially, a survey course in Kim 101.

He ascended to power at the age of 25, less than a decade after he attended school in Switzerland. His high school classmates remember him as someone who was reasonably "normal" there, considering his situation and his future.

He wasn't a bad basketball player, and he enjoyed other parts of Western culture, including music.

Once he returned home and had the power to make things happen, he built shopping malls and amusement parks – elements of Western culture that upgraded North Korea's image as a dull, grey communist state.

He allowed limited Internet and television, opening North Korea up to those dreaded outside images no one had been legally permitted to see for decades. He agreed to a meeting with South Korea, which had not happened in the half-century since the Korean War ended, and he agreed to have North and South Koreans form a joint Olympic squad in 2018.

But to truly open up the country, he would have to make changes that could weaken his own authoritarian powers within a rigid, dictatorial political system.

He can't or won't do that. So Mind of a Dictator suggests he has employed an alternate strategy that achieves some of his personal, if not national, goals.

His sister, Kim Yo-jong, has become his right-hand assistant, perhaps the second most powerful person in the country.

Kim Yo-jong comes across as a sort of Mona Lisa of North Korea, smiling without ever revealing why. She is who Kim Jong-un sent to South Korea for those landmark talks. She represents him in crucial meetings, both internal and international.

She is also, Mind of a Dictator suggests, an iron fist in the velvet glove. There is evidence, some commentators here suggest, that she had ordered executions of the family's enemies – something Kim Jong-un himself did a couple of years ago when he arranged the murder of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in an African airport.

Now, this documentary says, Kim Jong-un is outsourcing more and more of the hard muscle to Kim Yo-jong, giving himself distance from the dark, dirty work and allowing him to build his image as an enlightened statesman.

Whether Mind of a Dictator gets everything exactly right is an open question given the difficulty of anyone getting inside North Korea itself to do this kind of reporting. But the documentary doesn't have the ring of sensationalism, and its conclusions seem well-sourced.

Kim Jong-un was only the best friend of our former president for about 10 minutes. But he's still out there, and it's safe to say we'll be dealing with him again in some way. The more we know, the better we will be able to assess that encounter.

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