When bodyguard Lee Young Kuk first saw his boss bodyboarding in a private indoor swimming pool, he knew not to show his reaction. But it was a scene he could hardly forget: Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, in a bathing cap, splashing around in a seven-story pleasure palace equipped with a bar, a karaoke machine, a mini movie theater everything a Dear Leader could want. The ground floor had an enormous swimming pool with a wave machine. Kim liked to get on a bodyboard fitted with a small motor and tool around in the artificial waves. A pretty nurse and female doctor always accompanied him in the pool, swimming under their own power. Says Lee: "I wasn't surprised. You don't doubt anything he has absolute power."
Today Lee is a doubter and a whistle-blower. His 11 years as one of Kim's bodyguards gave him a unique view of the reclusive man who runs a country labeled last month by U.S. President George W. Bush as one of the world's most dangerous terrorist states. Lee traveled with Kim on visits to farms and factories and guarded his palatial residences. He stood watch as Kim bossed around underlings and partied with scantily clad women. He saw luxury and excess that later came to appall him. Disillusioned, Lee fled, but he was caught and thrown into one of North Korea's political prisons. He is one of a handful of inmates who have emerged alive.
A year and a half ago, Lee successfully escaped North Korea via China and now lives in Seoul. After months of hesitation, he decided to tell his story for the first time after learning that North Korean authorities have put his family under surveillance. He hopes to keep the wife and son he left behind from harsh treatment, gambling that Pyongyang will hesitate to further blacken its international image once his story is public. These days, South Korea discourages defectors from speaking out to avoid upsetting President Kim Dae Jung's policy of engagement with the North. But Lee, 39, believes engagement will never work: "North Korea's not going to change," he says. "If it did, Kim Jong Il thinks the country would collapse."
Lee was handpicked for the bodyguard job: when he was 17, recruiters came to his high school and selected him from a lineup of 1,000 students he was more muscular than most of his classmates. They scrupulously investigated his family, checking out cousins many times removed for political unreliability. Other prerequisites: no facial scars and a well-proportioned body. Sent to Pyongyang to train with 120 new recruits, he spent six months at the headquarters of Kim's personal bodyguard corps. For security reasons, all his family records were removed from the government's files, turning Lee into a non-person with only an ID number. Bodyguards were allowed no contact with their families. Lee's parents didn't know if he was alive or dead for 11 years.
Recruits ate well, getting the same rations as top party officials, including pork, fish and canned fruit. Training was demanding: Taekwondo classes sometimes carried out on steep mountain slopes and lots of hiking, including 25-km marches in full combat gear. Marksmanship was an important part of the training, especially the ability to shoot would-be assassins. Lee learned to hit a moving target at 250 m after sprinting in a chemical weapons suit and gas mask. The targets, he says, were always mock-ups of American soldiers; recruits were taught Americans would suck the blood from their necks.
Lee met his boss for the first time on Jan. 1, 1979, shortly after graduating. Standing in front of the man he had been taught was a living god, he blurted out his prepared lines his name, hometown, parents' names and a fulsome expression of gratitude but only just: "I was shaking. I was so nervous I couldn't talk right." After guarding buildings and vehicles, he worked his way up to Kim's Elite corps of about 200 bodyguards. He traveled with Kim to public events and guarded him at some of the eight residences he has outside Pyongyang, one for every province in North Korea. At the east coast beach house, he was part of a team assigned to protect Kim as he went for walks, always accompanied by a female doctor and nurse. "The nurse had to be pretty, smart, talkative and witty enough to entertain him," says Lee. "We didn't think they were really medical people they were both under 26." Kim refused to eat, drink or smoke anything from abroad, except for French wine. Even his hair oil had to be made in North Korea.