How to Become a Tyrant (2021) s01e06 Episode Script

Rule Forever

[theme music playing]
[crowd cheering]
[narrator] You've seen history's
most notorious dictators
use this playbook
to navigate their path to power.
And that by following their example,
absolute rule can be yours as well.
Toughness is good
because people respect you.
[guns blasting]
[narrator] But by one measure,
even these titans of tyranny fall short.
The problem that tyrants ultimately face
is that they're really not able
to achieve permanent stability.
[crowd cheering]
[narrator] But what if I told you
the playbook held the key
to keeping your regime alive,
not just through
the end of your days, but beyond.
And you can see
this tyrannical dream in action
in one of the most isolated
and repressive countries on Earth.
North Korea's founding father,
Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il
built a system of absolute rule
that is still going strong today
while turning their nation
into a shrine to their family's greatness,
a nuclear power, and a prison state.
They've done the single most important
thing you can do as a tyrant.
Survive in power.
[narrator]Time to reveal the path
to tyranny's greatest
and most elusive goal.
By now, it should be clear to you.
To endure as a tyrant,
you need to do more than build a movement.
You need to be the movement.
It's a hallmark of tyranny
going back to ancient times
that there is this cult of personality
surrounding the tyrant,
which portrays him
as the fount of all wisdom,
the fount of all virtue.
[narrator] And while most cults
of personality die with their leaders,
North Korea's has survived
for three generations.
I look at North Korea, really,
as a theocracy to create that aura
that in fact, they are,
quote, unquote, "God-like."
They believe in them,
much like a belief in religious faith.
[narrator] But to understand
how the Kims pulled this off,
you need to know a few things
about how the dynasty began.
[Jeong-Ho] In his 30s, Kim Il Sung is
an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter
that was quite well-known
fighting for Korean independence.
[man] After the end of World War II,
Korea's liberated.
American troops entered Korea
from the south
and Russian troops enter Korea
from the north,
and the man that
the Soviet Union puts into power
in the north is Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung took
a lot of the things from the playbook
that Stalin utilized
for controlling the Soviet Union.
One of the ways Kim Il Sung
kept power was regular purges.
The people around
the core of power are killed
or sent to gulags either because they are
thought to be plotting to take power
or just simply as an example
to keep everybody on their toes.
The Korean War was fought
between North Korea and China on one side
and South Korea,
the US, and the UN on the other.
It was a stalemate
and they were devastated.
They came to the conclusion
that in conventional warfare,
North Korea is no match
for the United States.
That in fact, they needed something else,
a super deterrent
that would guarantee their survivability.
[narrator] Achieving that
will take more than 50 years
and an ingredient,
besides enriched uranium,
rarely found among tyrannical types.
[bell dings]
But you can't build an everlasting regime
without a strong foundation
and a plan to keep your population
under total control.
Here's step one.
A great thinker once said,
"A man is only
as faithful as his options."
[bell dings]
So if you wanna rule forever,
it helps to be the only game in town.
North Korea stands as an example
of quite successfully being able
to isolate its people
from the rest of the world.
In North Korea,
there's no access to information.
The television only has one channel.
Phones are tapped.
[Jean] North Koreans cannot travel freely.
They can't travel
around the country freely,
and they cannot leave the country
without permission.
[narrator] And the original mastermind
of this isolation program?
The father of North Korea, Kim Il Sung,
who, after taking power
with Stalin's help,
is itching to craft
his own customized tyranny.
[Jean] By the 1950s,
Kim Il Sung was starting to chafe
under Soviet influence
and was starting to see
that he was going to need to make a break.
[narrator] And so he does
by creating a brand new
national ideology called Juche.
Juche. It can be translated
very loosely into "self-reliance."
He wanted to say, basically,
"We will do everything by ourselves."
[Jean] Koreans have been facing domination
from outside forces for centuries.
The Chinese, the Japanese.
Juche was created
to force them to think
about fending for themselves
and to turn that isolationism
into a source of pride.
[narrator] According to Juche principles,
cooperating with other nations
would destroy North Korea's sovereignty,
and the only way
for the nation to survive
is to unite under
the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung.
Juche has been used, very strategically,
as a way to justify and explain
why they're so isolated.
The isolation is an effective tool
to prevent popular discontent
about the state of the country.
So to open up North Korea
to this kind of flow of information,
I think would be quite devastating.
[narrator] See? Smart move.
Isolating your nation is a strong step
towards a long and healthy tyranny.
But we're aiming higher,
to build the regime without end.
To do that, you're going to need
a good succession plan,
and this one is playbook approved.
Dynastic rule is great for leaders
and it's also great for the coalition,
the supporters around the leader.
It's about continuity.
The coalition have reasons
to stay more loyal because we might say
"The apple doesn't drop
far from the tree."
[narrator] But for modern-day tyrants,
building a family dynasty is a tough trick
which few have been able to pull off.
Not Saddam with his boys or Gaddafi.
How about Stalin's kids?
Vasily, Svetlana, Yakov, or Artyom?
Ever heard of them? Me neither.
[buzzer honks]
As North Korean alpha leader,
Kim Il Sung's cult of personality
continues to grow.
He becomes determined
that his regime will be the exception.
He had this idea of replicating
somewhat of a modern-day monarchy
for the rule of North Korea.
[narrator] But even monarchies can
get messy when it comes to succession.
With royal families in Korean history,
you often had a king
with multiple consorts
and multiple potential heirs,
and that was true
with Kim Il Sung as well.
[narrator] That leaves the leader
with a very important decision.
Which kid to choose.
[Jean] He had a son, Kim Pyong Il,
who was seen as a potential heir.
[Paul] He was the favorite son.
He was the son
of Kim Il Sung's second wife,
who was in greater favor
than his first wife, who had passed away.
[narrator] While firstborn son,
Kim Jong Il is left out in the cold.
But North Korea's
future ruler number two has big plans.
[Paul] If you're born into that family,
you sort of develop from a very young age
a sense of "kill or be killed,"
"dog-eat-dog" world.
You either have all the power,
or you have none,
and there's nothing in between.
[narrator] To prove his claim, Kim Jong Il
would need to find the right moment
and make it count.
In the wake of the latest
purge of unreliable officials,
the big boss, Kim Il Sung,
has several openings to fill,
including in the Propaganda Ministry,
charged with North Korea's
most important pursuit.
Glorifying the Great Leader.
Kim Il Sung pays a visit
to North Korea's film studio
with his 25-year-old son,
Kim Jong Il, by his side.
He berates the studio workers
for their ineffective propaganda films,
which are betraying their nation.
He dares them to have the courage
to overhaul the studio
and restore it back to glory.
When no one responds,
Kim Jong Il volunteers
to take up his father's challenge.
[Paul] This is one of the vital incidents
of Kim Jong Il's rise that,
as a good, dutiful son,
when there was a moment of need,
he volunteered, boldly,
even though he was young.
[narrator] Kim Jong Il is immediately
named Cultural Arts Director
and begins producing
the film Sea of Blood,
an epic tale
of North Korean self-reliance.
In it, a 1930s family suffers
under Japanese occupation
before heroically fighting back,
based on a story by Kim Il Sung himself.
It premieres to rave reviews.
Within two years,
Kim Jong Il becomes head
of the entire Propaganda Ministry,
setting him off on his course,
from lost boy to heir apparent.
[Paul] By 1974, even though
he won't take power for the next 20 years,
it is communicated to the party that,
yeah, this is the guy.
[male voice]
Kim Jong Il's royalty is unfailing.
In short, he's the incarnation of royalty.
[narrator] In securing his rule
and naming a successor,
Kim Il Sung did his part
to position the dynasty for success.
But before the understudy
can take the stage,
Kim Jong Il will need
to chart his own course
to grow the family business.
And when you don't have the help you need,
sometimes you just need
to take matters into your own hands.
[Paul] Kim Jong Il developed kidnapping
as a state tool
that he wasn't shy about using personally
if he felt he wanted someone,
for whatever reason, in the country.
[Jean] Kim Jong Il wanted
to train his spies to speak Japanese,
so he kidnapped Japanese citizens.
In some cases,
they were just plucked off the beach
and disappeared.
And for years,
their families had no idea
that they were in North Korea.
[narrator] But for Kim Jong Il,
rising star of North Korean cinema,
his nation had a staffing issue
that was even more troubling.
In the 1970s, Kim Jong Il had made films
that were successful in North Korea,
but were still
kind of made fun of around the world.
[speaking Korean]
[Paul] Kim Jong Il recognized
that every form of power
is based on stories, and his love
for storytelling and for narrative
could be put to use
to try and perpetuate the regime.
Looking to crack Hollywood's secrets,
Kim watches films day and night.
[Paul] He'd created this huge
worldwide bootleg system
to provide him with every film
that came out subtitled and printed
and ready for him to watch.
And he would keep all of these films
in a building in Pyongyang
no one could access.
[narrator] But Kim Jong Il
quickly realizes his biggest problem.
To make A movies, you need A-list talent.
So what's this tactic about again?
Right, kidnapping.
So now it's a question about who to grab.
[Jean] Kim Jong Il staged the kidnapping
of one of South Korea's
most beloved actresses,
Choi Eun-hee, in Hong Kong,
and somehow lured her ex-husband,
the revered film director, Shin Sang-ok,
to look for her,
and they entrapped him as well.
[Paul] He keeps them imprisoned
without seeing one another
for… five to six years
until their resolve is essentially broken.
And then he brings them back together.
He announces publicly
that they've happily joined
the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
[narrator] Over the next three years,
Shin and Choi produce 17 films
under Kim Jong Il's watchful eye.
He basically forced them to create
a film industry, um, in North Korea.
[crowd clamoring]
Shin's films have to fit
Kim's propaganda purposes,
but he's also allowed
to break the rules a little bit,
and it actually enhances Kim's power,
because North Koreans
now have a reason to see these films.
They are unlike anything else
they've seen in 40 years,
but that still serve the purpose
of developing the narrative of the nation.
[narrator] But Kim Jong Il, still just
the heir apparent, has a problem.
That national narrative
is currently based around his father,
the eternal divine
and still living leader, Kim Il Sung.
Quite a challenge.
How do you make your case
to succeed a god?
Pity, poor Kim Jong Il.
He's doing such a great job elevating
his father's cult of personality,
it's leaving him little time
to develop his own.
[machine gun fires]
Kim Jong Il wasn't the gregarious,
charismatic, outgoing, people-person
that his father was.
He was very behind the scenes.
Kim Jong Il needed to build
a narrative for North Korea
past its first leader.
That would give him legitimacy.
[machine gun firing]
[narrator] And that plan begins here,
at North Korea's most sacred site,
Mount Paektu.
Legend has it,
this is where Korean civilization began
with the birth of the God-king, Dangun.
[Jean] For the Kims,
so much of their family lore
is built around Mount Paektu.
According to Kim Il Sung's official bio,
before his nation achieved independence,
his forces battled the Japanese
from a base camp on Paektu's slopes,
while most experts place it
some 200 miles away in Manchuria.
To strengthen his case
as heir to the throne,
Kim Jong Il adds himself
to the family myth.
Kim Jong Il was born in 1941 in Russia,
but he couldn't have been born there.
He had to be a son of the country,
so now the story was written
that he was born on Mount Paektu.
[narrator] In the official account
spread through the media, books,
songs and taught in schools,
Kim Jong Il's birth
was foretold by a swallow,
-who descended from Heaven.
-[swallow crying]
The winter skies parted to reveal
the brightest double rainbow ever seen.
A new star appeared in the sky.
Kim Il Sung's soldiers were so moved
that they burst into joyful song.
[narrator] But why stop there?
[Paul] As Kim Jong Il rose to power,
he would have people rewrite
his narrative of his life as it went.
It was very important
that he seemed to have superhuman powers.
So progressively, these stories
become crazier and crazier.
[narrator] The North Korean government
begins issuing press releases
sharing some important "facts"
about the rising leader.
Like that he learned to walk
at three weeks old
and speak at eight weeks.
That he can control the weather.
Ingeniously authored 1500 books.
That the first time he played golf,
-he made 11 holes in one.
-[crowd cheering]
He's such a perfect physiological specimen
that he doesn't produce
any form of human waste,
so he has no need for a toilet.
-[toilet gurgling]
-[snaps fingers]
And in the final gift to humankind,
he also invented the hamburger.
Laugh if you want, but with the playbook,
there's always a method to the madness.
[Jean] That mythology is designed
to enforce the idea
that Kim Jong Il has
a divine right to rule.
[Jeong-Ho] If you think of it
from a logical perspective,
it doesn't really make any sense,
but for a North Korean,
um, it's not a question of logic.
Uh, really it's a question of faith.
[narrator] With eternal leader
Kim Il Sung ailing
and Kim Jong Il
nearing his date with destiny,
that faith is about to be tested.
[machine gun fires]
The 1990s was
a kind of a combination of bad luck.
Bad crops, mismanagement,
so it's basically the perfect storm
that created this,
uh, collapse of the system
that led to widespread famine.
[narrator] That's the last thing you need
when you're racing
to solidify your dynasty.
But what separates
tyranny's legends from losers
is they don't let problems
bring them down.
When you're looking to rule forever,
hunger can have its advantages.
[Alastair] Poor, hungry,
isolated people are no threat to you.
Starving people aren't going to give food
to rebels to fight the government.
They're too weak to fight back.
It's a sad reality,
but starving people works.
[narrator] Like it or not,
the results speak for themselves.
Stalin took advantage
of a deadly famine in the Ukraine
to crush any thoughts of independence
and help keep the Soviet Union intact,
while tens of millions dead in China
as a result
of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward
did little to weaken his hold
over the nation.
And Ethiopian dictator
Mengistu Haile Mariam
weathered his country's
devastating famine in the early 1980s,
ruling for another eight years.
[Jean] The Kims, they've never been able
to feed their own people
despite the mythology
that they had to maintain
that they could do it on their own.
North Korea had relied for so many decades
on the Soviet umbrella in terms of
where they were getting supplies.
[narrator] But in the early '90s,
the Soviet Union falls apart,
and North Korea's economy
quickly follows suit.
[Jean] That just started
this cascading effect
of tragedy after tragedy.
Hundreds of thousands
of North Koreans starved to death,
and those are conservative estimates.
It's probably a lot higher.
I would identify that period
as the lowest of lows.
[narrator] So naturally,
this is the exact moment
when North Korea's
seemingly immortal first leader,
Kim Il Sung, finally decides to check out.
[speaking Korean]
The death of Kim Il Sung in 1994,
uh, for the majority of North Koreans,
uh, was the most devastating event.
You see, you know, people in mourning.
So it's not just mourning.
It's almost like the Messiah had died.
[narrator] And even worse, Kim Jong Il is
seeing his dream of a perpetual dynasty
hanging by a thread.
[Suki] How do you survive politically
after millions of citizens died,
and there's nothing to eat?
Kim Jong Il goes back to storytelling.
He needed to perpetuate this idea
that the country was under threat
from aggression from the United States.
And so it was
tapping back into the Korean War
and bringing it into the present.
[narrator] And a country at war
needs to stick together.
[Paul] He starts propaganda campaigns
whereby people are told
they should choose
to eat only one or two meals a day
to celebrate Kim Il Sung
and the guerrilla fighters.
[narrator] Inspiring sacrifice is
all part of the job.
What you do in your free time
is your own business.
[Jean] Kim Jong Il had excessive,
expensive tastes.
He spent, I believe,
more than $800,000 a year
just on cognac.
So while his countrymen are allegedly
selling baby flesh in markets,
Kim Jong Il's got
multiple villas and private chefs,
and he's importing liquor by the tons.
He's living
the most luxurious life possible
for him and a very small group of people.
While letting his countrymen die.
[narrator] Yet, despite the Dear Leader's
skill in making hunger work for him,
the Kim family's eternal regime
is still far from secure.
[Paul] Everybody was predicting
that Kim Jong Il was inexperienced,
less charismatic,
less godly than his father
and that sooner or later
he would have to fail,
the regime would have to fail.
[narrator] But Kim Jong Il is
about to prove the doubters wrong
by unleashing the playbook's final
and most devastating tactic
that can turn a starving nation
into an unstoppable force.
A sad truth of becoming a tyrant
is that chances are
you'll someday
have a run-in with meddling foreigners
who think the world
would be better off without you.
We've lost
a lot of Hall of Famers this way.
Like Saddam Hussein,
deposed by a US-led invasion in 2003,
captured by American forces,
and executed three years later.
Adolf Hitler's reign ended
with the Allies encircling Berlin in 1945,
leading the once-mighty Fuhrer
to commit suicide in his bunker.
And let's not forget Muammar Gaddafi,
whose demise was sped along
by a NATO bombing campaign in 2011.
To avoid falling
in their unfortunate footsteps,
nothing but
the ultimate deterrent will do.
[choral music plays]
The Kims call their nuclear weapons
their "treasured sword."
It will protect them.
Nuclear weapons figure so heavily
into the strategy
of how to keep North Korea intact
with the Kim family at the helm.
[narrator] Okay, so how do you become
a nuclear power?
To start, you need world-class scientists,
a few hundred pounds of uranium,
a processing facility,
and a boatload of cash.
Seems simple enough? It's not.
To make nuclear weapons,
you need to run your uranium
through thousands
of specialized centrifuges
that are tightly controlled
for obvious reasons.
The process takes months to complete
and can be slowed by accidents.
Or sabotage.
Then you need to figure out delivery.
You could try
dropping them from airplanes,
firing short-range missiles,
using submarines,
or the superpower weapon of choice,
intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And to be sure your weapon works,
you're going to have
to conduct some tests,
which the world will surely notice
and do everything they can to stop you
before your program is operational.
The race is on.
Like everything in North Korea,
the Kims' nuclear pursuits
are a family affair.
[Jeong-Ho] Before Kim Il Sung died,
he in fact began
to stockpile nuclear materials.
[narrator] That's step one.
But after nearly four decades
of research and development,
the program never fully
got off the ground.
[Jeong-Ho] When he died,
there was no nuclear weapons,
so Kim Jong Il, um, essentially inherits
the nuclear program his father started.
Kim Jong Il's determined to make
his father's nuclear dreams come true.
But with North Korea's economy in crisis,
he doesn't exactly have
boatloads of cash to spare.
So he's going to have
to get entrepreneurial.
[Jeong-Ho] So North Korea was able
to finance this nuclear program
through illicit trade,
counterfeit products,
drugs, smuggling, money laundering.
So whatever illegal methods was
available there, North Korea has done it.
[narrator] In 2009, Kim Jong Il
achieves step number two.
North Korea conducts
a successful underground nuclear test
and also fires a series of missiles
that land in the waters near Japan.
But the family's great enemy
in the west, America,
remains frustratingly out of reach.
[woman] We had spent,
during the Clinton Administration,
quite a lot of time trying to figure out
what the North Koreans were doing.
Kim Dae-Jung,
who was the president of South Korea,
said to me, "This man is not crazy."
"He's very smart, and you need
to see him from that perspective."
[Jeong-Ho] But if we look at exactly
what Kim Jong Il was thinking,
he had to pursue nuclear weapons
as a way of safeguarding,
um, the, uh, country,
and that event actually went on
until 2011 when he-- when he died.
[reporter] Under an intense snowstorm,
thousands of North Koreans
give their last farewell to Kim Jong Il.
For the funeral procession
carried the Dear Leader's coffin.
[narrator] But the great thing
about an eternal regime,
death is a mere speed bump.
Time for Kim Jong Il's son,
Kim Jong Un, to pick up the baton.
When Kim Jong Un takes over,
he actually accelerates
the testing of nuclear weapons
and the testing
of intercontinental missile technologies.
[narrator] And 64 years
after the end of the Korean War,
Kim Jong Un finally finishes the job.
[Jeong-Ho] In 2017,
they conducted their nuclear test.
They claimed to be a hydrogen bomb
capable of hitting the United States.
[narrator] Grandpa would be so proud.
The regime he set up to rule forever
now has the ultimate safety net.
North Korea is a nuclear power.
That gives them the tools
by which the Kim family
can now continue
to perpetuate their power,
their authority,
and succession in the future.
This system, it exists on and on and on.
That's maybe what's different
about this dictatorship.
It just, it won't die.
"The Great Leader" dictatorship
continued on.
[narrator] There it is, as simple as that.
With this playbook in hand,
you can go from broke outcast
to absolute ruler.
Crush all rivals in your path,
dominate your people's bodies and minds,
create your perfect society,
and with an assist
from the ultimate weapon, rule forever.
Come on, what's stopping you?
What kind of person can be a tyrant?
I'm going to give
a very depressing answer.
Anybody can be a tyrant.
[narrator] Ready to take your shot?
[theme music playing]
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