North Korea has become a focal point of US foreign-policy discussions, but having been called a "hermit kingdom," one suspects many Americans know relatively little about the reigning family's brutal history -- or how that came to be. Given that, National Geographic Channel's "Inside North Korea's Dynasty" feels like a timely public service, pulling back the curtain on "the story of the Kims, a family of dictators."
The four-part documentary, scheduled over two Sunday nights, analyzes North Korea's "strange psychology," rooted in the indignities suffered under Japanese occupation before the end of World War II. Part I is thus devoted to Kim Il Sung, a guerrilla fighter who came to power and solidified his hold over the country after Korea's arbitrary division along the 38th parallel.
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Filled with rich detail, the documentary features harrowing accounts from those who lived through those years, such as an interview with a commando who participated in a failed raid intended to kill the South Korean leader, which prompted the execution of the soldier's parents.
The narrative proceeds to the unexpected rise of son Kim Jong Il, initially seen as long shot to assume power. He's described as "a spoiled rich kid, raised like a prince," who loved movies (including a particular fondness for James Bond films) and used propaganda as the means to become his father's heir. That includes an utterly bizarre interlude in the late 1970s when he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his movie-star wife, Choi Eun-hee, who were forced to work in North Korea before the couple escaped.
Not for the faint of heart, the special chronicles a series of horrors, including mass starvation, using executions to squelch labor unrest and the terrorist bombing of a South Korean airliner, as North Korea chafed at having been denied a chance to help host the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
The most germane portion of "Inside North Korea's Dynasty," however, is the second half, when President George W. Bush's "access of evil" speech following the Sept. 11 attacks, coupled with the invasion of Iraq, convinced Kim Jong Il that nuclear weapons represented "the one thing that could guarantee his regime's survival."
As the film demonstrates, Kim Jong Un's ascent after his father's death in 2011 brought its own array of outrages and oddities, including the murders of his uncle and half-brother and, in a considerably lighter vein, his strange friendship with Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman.
Over a year in the making, the documentary presents plenty of previously unseen or little-seen footage as it seeks to frame the larger issues, noting that North Korea's current leader can't be understood "without understanding the family into which he was born."
"Inside North Korea's Dynasty" concludes with Kim Jong Un's summit with President Trump, a diplomatic coup that eluded his father and grandfather. While the story doesn't offer any reassuring solutions as to what comes next, as is so often said of history, North Korea's past truly does seem to be prologue.
"Inside North Korea's Dynasty" will air Nov. 11 and 18 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.