It has been over a year since Kim Jong-un assumed the mantle of Supreme Leader of North Korea and, frankly, he must have been getting bored of merely looking at things. Tuesday’s successful nuclear test was a seismic event in a very real sense; a brazen display of dictatorial dick-measuring that registered at 4.9 on the Richter scale. If television news cameras were allowed inside the world’s most secretive state, we might have seen Kim waving to the adoring crowds sporting one of his fetching Dr Evil costumes. As it is, we will have to imagine the propagandistic bombardment that was visited upon the country’s long-suffering population.
Given his lineage, it was inevitable that Kim would bear some of the essential hallmarks of a crazed dictator. Wacky attire? Check. Nuclear stockpiling? Check. Hermit-like secrecy? Check. Yet he has failed thus far to develop the narcissistic cult of personality befitting of a true maniac. The decadent despot is, thankfully, a dying breed, but Kim’s relative lack of flamboyance begs the question: who is the king of the cult of personality?
We need not look too far to begin the search. Call him what you will – Dear Leader, Bright Sun of the 21st Century, Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love – fifty-five times titled Kim Jong-il has given his son plenty to emulate. Over the course of his seventeen year premiership, Jong-il’s notorious propaganda machine attempted to convince North Koreans that, amongst other glorious achievements, the ‘Amazing Politician’ (yet another of his official titles) was a fashion trendsetter who invented the hamburger.
He was, allegedly, the world’s biggest consumer of Hennessey cognac; his birth caused winter to change to spring and saw rainbows spontaneously appear in the sky; an official biography of the state website, since taken down, even claimed that he didn’t defecate. That’s not to mention a record-breaking round of golf in 1994 which, according to every single one of his seventeen on-duty bodyguards, saw Jong-il shoot eleven hole-in-ones to card 38-under-par.
Moving away from North Korea – and God knows, many of its citizens wish they could – recently departed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi puts forward a pretty convincing case for the top spot. The Colonel, who attracted plenty of attention from perplexed onlookers for the cult of personality that he orchestrated meticulously over the course of his life, devoted much of his career to refining a quixotic public image of himself. His increasingly erratic behaviour as he became consumed by immense power manifested itself in a series of ever greater peculiarities.
His outrageous, eclectic and lavishly assembled wardrobe – Gaddafi had a penchant for ornate military uniforms – is merely the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps most infamously, Gaddafi chose to surround himself with what he called the ‘Revolutionary Nuns’ – an all-female ensemble of bodyguards charged with protecting the Colonel which came to be known in the western media as his ‘Amazonian Guard’. Handpicked by Gaddafi himself, the women were lethal fighters sworn to a life of celibacy, who travelled with him at all times.
Gaddafi had a deeply disturbing obsession with Condoleezza Rice – who he called his “darling black African woman” – showering the former US Secretary of State with $200,000 worth of gifts on a state visit in 2008. When rebels stormed Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound earlier this year, they were surprised to discover a photo album comprised exclusively of photos of Rice amongst his most prized possessions.
And that’s not all. Having abolished shops in the 1980s (they were, Gaddafi insisted, “nests of exploiters”) he called for the extinction of Switzerland in 2009, branding the country “a world mafia and not a state”. Instead, he suggested that it should be split into three and distributed equally between France, Germany and Italy.
He also hated flying over water, or for more than eight hours at a time; would only climb a maximum of 35 steps; and shunned the world’s greatest hotels on state visits, instead choosing to camp out in capital cities in an enormous bulletproof tent which had to be transported wherever he went on a separate plane.
Yet Gaddafi’s eccentricity still pales in comparison to some of his fellow 20th Century dictators. Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and former President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos both ventured frequently into the realms of absurdity. The excesses of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein – who spent millions rebuilding Nebuchadnezzar’s ancient palace using bricks stamped with his own initials – certainly put him up there with the maddest and baddest of them all.
But none of these gentlemen compare to the undisputed king of the cult of personality, Saparmurat Niyazov. President of Turkmenistan until 2006, Niyazov provides incontrovertible proof of the old adage ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Having banned dogs from the capital Ashgabat because of their “unappealing odour”, he later outlawed opera, ballet, circuses and beards. In 2002, he renamed every month of the year and day of the week after various Turkmen heroes and values. He even named the month of January after himself, and September was restyled ‘Ruhnama’ – the title of a book of spiritual guidance authored by Niyazov himself. The grand aesthetic legacy of his presidency? The ‘Neutrality Arch’, a $12 million, 39 ft high gold-plated statue of himself in the country’s capital, which revolves so that it is always facing the sun.
This is an expanded version of a column that originally appeared in The Mancunion – www.mancunion.com