x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Korean conundrum: did Bill meet Kim or actor?

Experts disagree on theory that the North Korean leader has as many as three lookalikes to meet dignitaries and attend functions.

Former US president Bill Clinton in August with Kim Il Jong, left - or is it?.
Former US president Bill Clinton in August with Kim Il Jong, left - or is it?.

BEIJING // Hitler had one, as did Stalin and even Saddam Hussein, but now claims have re-emerged that Kim Jong Il, the reclusive North Korean leader, has been using a lookalike to meet world leaders. When the former US president Bill Clinton made an unprecedented trip to Pyongyang in August to secure the release of two US journalists, it was Mr Kim's double that he was photographed with, according to Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of international relations at Waseda University in Tokyo.

He also claims an impersonator was used for a meeting with the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in October and for meetings with the former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and the late Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. The existence of Mr Kim's doubles has been sporadically yet unceasingly raised by some North Korean defectors and analysts. But, unsurprisingly, it has never been officially confirmed. Mr Shigemura, a well-known scholar on Korean affairs, said he knows three Japanese individuals who met North Korean actors playing Mr Kim's double, as early as 1995. Mr Shigemura also said he has sources close to the "North Korea's royal family".

"In fact, there are three of them," he said, referring to the impersonators. "Two of them almost exactly resemble Kim Jong Il." Mr Kim started using doubles around 1992 after a failed assassination attempt, according to Mr Shigemura. He said the doubles underwent plastic surgery and usually show up for outdoor public appearances, while the real Mr Kim appears for indoor meetings. "These actors have been playing Kim Jong Il for nearly 20 years. They are very skillful in playing Kim's personality seamlessly. They are also instructed by the military and officials at the Workers' Party on what to say with foreign dignitaries," Mr Shigemura said.

Other analysts are divided over Mr Shigemura's view. Cui Zhiying, the director of the Korean Peninsula Research Centre at Tongji University in Shanghai, said: "I'm really not sure about this ... but there are many cases when the media hype up North Korea stories." Kang Cheol-Hwan, a North Korea researcher at the North Korea-China Institute of Chosunilbo in Seoul, dismissed the claims. "That's impossible," said Mr Kang, who is a North Korean defector. "North Korea is a regime that looks up to only Kim as a deity. For Kim to use a shadow actor would directly undermine his authority."

Mr Kim suffered a stroke last summer, which paralysed part of his body, analysts said. But most also say Mr Kim has since recovered well. Observers believe Mr Kim is likely to visit China in the coming few months. South Korean and US intelligence communities, in general, view Mr Shigemura's theory as a "possibility", but do not go so far as to believe that the Kim Jong Il who met the former US president or Chinese premier Mr Wen, the Chinese premier, was also a double.

"Kim Jong Il is known to be a person who makes big diplomatic decisions on the spur of the moment. That's something an actor cannot afford to do," a South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol. But Baek Seung-joo, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, said: "The government has the view that shadow Kim Jong Il is indeed present, but Kim Jong Il hasn't died yet."

Many remain sceptical. "If the person Chinese premier Wen Jiabao met in October in Pyongyang was a fake Kim Jong Il, that would be quite an insult to China, which is the closet ideological ally and a major economic benefactor to North Korea," said Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies in California. Lee Hee-ok, a North Korea analyst at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said employing a double for important functions goes against the interest of North Korea which is at a critical period and in the process of leadership change and engaged in negotiation with the US.

"Having a double means that the leadership is not fully involved in running a country. Such a void is not the kind of strategy you could afford at this juncture," Mr Lee said. In recent years, Mr Shigemura has been regarded as the primary figure behind the lookalikes theory. He has, however, moderated his view that Mr Kim died from diabetes in 2003. "As of now, in 2009, I am 90 per cent certain that Kim Jong Il is dead."

Yet, if the past is any guide, an argument that there are people playing the role of Mr Kim is quite plausible to some. "All the dictators had doubles. That's part of the game dictators play," said Kongdan Oh, author of the book The Hidden People of North Korea. foreign.desk@thenational.ae