Peter Maass knows Kim Jong Il pretty well.
Maass’s profile of the North Korean dictator, which was a New York Times Magazine cover story, rejects the conventional caricature of Kim as eccentric playboy and unstable drunk. It portrays a man who is smarter, more serious, and in some ways more normal than anyone suspected.
But Maass never interviewed Kim Jong Il. He wasn’t allowed into North Korea at all.
His editors didn’t expect that he would be when they assigned the profile this summer. But they had a prototype: Mark Bowden’s profile of Saddam Hussein, printed in the Atlantic Monthly last year. Without ever meeting Saddam or travelling to Iraq, Bowden wrote what Maass calls “a really interesting, in-depth profile of him that probably was the best that anybody wrote.”
Now Maass was going to attempt the same thing.
He cautioned his editors: Understand that there are a lot more people who have met Saddam Hussein and will talk about him than have met Kim Jong Il and will talk about him. I doubt I’ll be able to get anything as rich as what Bowden got.
Months later, Maass had assembled a really interesting, in-depth profile of Kim Jong Il that probably is the best that anybody has written.
“I was lucky,” he says, “that in the last two or three years, a lot of material has emerged — not in English — that has not been published in America, and that has not circulated widely amongst even Korean experts. It was a serendipitous matter of my editors assigning a story to me that, no matter who the reporter was, if they did the right things, they would have stumbled upon these things, and they would have come up with a lot of material that would have made for a very good profile of this guy.”
Incidentally, that reporter might have been Mark Bowden. Maass met him at a dinner party recently, and told him that the Saddam Hussein profile had been an inspiration. Maass recalls: “He laughed and said, ‘After I wrote my Saddam story, my editors asked me to write a profile of Kim Jong Il, and I told them, I don’t want to get a name as the guy who profiles people he never meets.’ “
Peter Maass began by calling the usual suspects — the people who get quoted in newspapers and go on TV to talk about North Korea. But Maass didn’t want to know what they thought of Kim Jong Il; he wanted their help finding sources that were closer.
The Korea experts reminded him to look for a book by Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who had been Vladimir Putin’s representative on Kim Jong Il’s 2001 rail tour of Russia.
“I needed to get an English translation of it,” Maass says. “I called up the publisher in Moscow — I knew it hadn’t been published in English, but I thought maybe, well, there’s a translation in the works — they said no. So then, I started searching around for anybody who had an unofficial translation.”
He found one at an intelligence agency in Washington.
“I asked them if they would let me have a copy,” Maass recalls, “and they said yeah, sure. I thought, well, they’re just saying that.” But sure enough, a copy of the Pulikovsky book, as well as another book Maass had been searching for — a memoir by Kim Jong Il’s sister-in-law, who defected in 1996 — arrived by FedEx in New York.
And so he began to build a library.
In 1978, Choi Eun Hee, a South Korean actress, and Shin Sang Ok, her film-director husband, were kidnapped and brought to North Korea. They were forced to make films there until they escaped eight years later. They wrote a book about their ordeal — which included lots of time spent with Kim Jong Il – called “Kidnapped to the North Korean Paradise.” The problem: It was in Korean.
“I think I just did a Google search on them,” Maass says, “and tried to find someone in America who might know them. I found the name of this woman who had put together a retrospective of the director’s films for a museum in New York, and I called her up and explained to her what I was doing, and said can you put me in touch with these people, because I’m looking for an English translation of their book.” There was a private translation, he found out; in fact, the couple was trying to get it published. He got a copy.
Maass also wanted a translation of the memoir by Hwang Jang Yop, who was Kim Jong Il’s father’s closest advisor for more than thirty years before fleeing North Korea. He got it from Don Oberdorfer, a retired Washington Post reporter.
In 2000, a group of South Korean media executives visited North Korea and met several times with Kim Jong Il. Afterwards, they assembled an unofficial transcript of everything that he had said to them. The document hasn’t been published anywhere, but Maass got a copy — an English translation — from the South Korean ambassador to the United States.
So by now Maass had acquired more than 1,000 pages of material.
“It was unusual,” he says. “I had never written a story based on this much documentation. Most of what appears in my stories tends to be things that I saw, that people told me. Although I do readings as background, I had never done as much reading as I did for this.”
But he plowed through it, and whittled the material to about 500 pages of underlined reference.
“By the time I went to South Korea,” he says, “I had 90 percent of my material. I mean, that reporting was very useful… but I could have done the story without going to South Korea, just as Mark Bowden did his story without going to Iraq.”
The writing took about two weeks in early September. The profile was published on October 19.
So could just anybody have written this piece? Er, probably not. Peter Maass is an experienced, tenacious reporter. And yet, there’s something satisfying about the fact that there were no secrets here. As is often the case, the story was hiding in plain sight.
“Going back to what I initially told my editors: I thought it would be very hard to get any primary sources on Kim Jong Il,” Maass explains. “And it ended up not being easy to get those sources — I mean, I had to dig around a lot — but it wasn’t great sleuthing. It wasn’t Bob Woodward meeting in basements. There weren’t any dead drops involved.”