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A Dictator’s Double Is Keeping Up Appearances

Times Staff Writer

After he passed his 40th birthday, Kim Young-sik looked in the mirror and brooded over his evolving appearance. His cheeks were sagging into a jowl, his hairline creeping up his temples and his beltline disappearing under a protruding belly.

When the South Korean businessman put on an oversize pair of sunglasses at a family gathering soon afterward, his sister-in-law remarked immediately on the uncanny resemblance.

“Ha, ha, ha. You look just like Kim Jong Il,” she said.

So what could otherwise have turned into a midlife crisis has instead spawned a new career as one of the preeminent impersonators of the eccentric North Korean leader. Kim Jong Il -- with his bouffant hairdo and rotund physique -- is a sufficiently iconic figure that plausible look-alikes are always in demand.

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To the extent that Kim Jong Il appears in American pop culture, it is as the archetypal villain. He has been parodied on “Saturday Night Live” by comedian Horatio Sanz, who also does a wicked Saddam Hussein, and he appears in the 2004 satire “Team America: World Police,” as the tyrannical puppet who feeds U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to sharks.

But the North Korean leader played by Kim Young-sik is a more benign figure, almost a lovable, pot-bellied dictator.

Among recent gigs, the impersonator appeared last year in a Japanese television serial and in a music video with the South Korean rapper Psy. He flew to Beirut to shoot a commercial aired in Arab countries in which the Kim Jong Il character vies with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for a bar of chocolate. (Kim wins.)

“I am a natural,” boasted the 56-year-old Kim Young-sik. Although he is nine years younger than the original, they are the same height -- about 5-foot-3 -- and similarly pudgy around the middle. “I didn’t have to perm my hair. I didn’t need plastic surgery. Even my family name, Kim, didn’t have to be changed.”

In real life, however, the impersonator is a modest man who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Seoul behind his cluttered shop, which makes business cards and the name chops favored here for stamping official documents. Unlike the real Kim Jong Il, he doesn’t drink. He has a self-effacing manner, graciously serving guests iced coffee and sandwiches. Before he discovered his talent for impersonating Kim Jong Il, he had never traveled outside South Korea.

As a child, Kim fantasized about being a performer. But coming from a poor family of farmers, he didn’t dare to try. His big break came in 1995, after he spotted an advertisement for an actor to play the North Korean dictator while flipping through the movie section of a newspaper.

He sent in a photograph of himself but forgot to include his phone number. The casting director had to call the police to track him down. Beating out 120 other look-alikes, he got the part in the political thriller “The Rose of Sharon Blooms Again.”

In the film, based on a best-selling novel of the same name, the Kim Jong Il figure is a nationalist hero who uses his nuclear weapons as a deterrent to prevent a Japanese invasion of South Korea.

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The actor suggests that it is impossible to impersonate without identifying and that his acting stints have given him a certain sympathy for the fellow.

“Sometimes, I feel like I am Kim Jong Il,” the impersonator said.

If nothing else, Kim is a convincing double. Studying photographs and television footage, he perfected Kim Jong Il’s carriage and distinctive way of standing with his hands clasped behind his back, belly boldly protruding. He has down pat the tightly controlled Queen Elizabeth-style wave so emblematic of heads of state. In hopes of getting more speaking parts, he is working now on his Pyongyang accent.

Kim invested the proceeds of his Japanese television gig in a new wardrobe. He had a tailor copy Kim Jong Il’s suits -- including his favorite olive-drab fatigues. He bought two pairs of platform shoes, just like those worn by the real “Dear Leader.”

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Around his neighborhood, Kim is a celebrity. He often wears his full Kim Jong Il regalia to the store, attracting double-takes from customers and passersby.

“Hiya ‘Chairman,’ ” people call out on the street, using Kim Jong Il’s formal title as chairman of the National Defense Commission. (His father, the late Kim Il Sung, remains in name North Korea’s president, despite his death in 1994.)

Being an impersonator of Kim Jong Il in South Korea is a delicate business, requiring as much diplomatic as acting skill.

Until the late 1990s, there was very little work because of the fever pitch of anti-communism in South Korea. Photographs of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il seldom appeared in the media. Possession of a North Korean flag could land you in jail.

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Kim Young-sik was born in 1950, the year the North set off the Korean War with its invasion of its southern neighbor. He grew up in South Jeolla province, where communist sympathizers faced brutal treatment by the military dictatorship.

“When I was growing up, you could get in trouble just wearing a red scarf,” Kim said.

Even today, Kim is nervous about appearing in public wearing the red lapel badge bearing the image of Kim Il Sung that is an obligatory item in all North Korean wardrobes.

But much has changed since 2000, when then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang for a historic summit with the North Korean leader. The impersonator’s big worry now is that his imitation of Kim Jong Il could chill the warming relations between their countries. “I wouldn’t want Kim Jong Il to be offended by anything I do,” Kim said. “I don’t want to portray him as an evil person.”

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Kim says that he would love to do a Hollywood movie but would decline “for any amount of money if it was a role derogatory to North Korea.”

So for the time being, Kim remains a small-time impersonator, doing low-paying gigs.

“People will ask me to come to the 70th birthday party of their father so he can get his picture taken with the chairman. I usually don’t make enough for the carfare,” Kim said.

And he dreams of the day when he would get a summons to Pyongyang from Kim Jong Il saying, “Little Brother, come and see me.”

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