Lee Young-guk is a struggling duck breeder in muddy work clothes, shepherding 10,000 feathered wards at his rural family-owned spread near the North Korean border.
For the taciturn 50-year-old, his omnipresent baseball cap worn low over watchful eyes, common farm life is a distant second act to the years when he enjoyed an intimate view of a bizarre lifestyle that, as he puts it, “few mortals ever witness.”
For 10 years, until 1988, Lee was a personal bodyguard for Kim Jong Il, working among the phalanx of trained killers who protected the future North Korean dictator, infamous for, among other things, his fetishes for handguns, imported caviar and foreign-made limousines.
Lee oversaw the enigmatic strongman’s younger years as a leader in training, observing a privileged life played out inside grim fortresses and hideaway villas. Eventually, Lee came to detest what he now recalls as a farcical leader who enjoyed unparalleled luxury while his impoverished nation starved.
He watched high-ranking officials hide behind trees rather than face the mercurial “Dear Leader,” who was so fearful of duplicity that he constantly switched limousines, so fussy that he demanded his favorite perfume sprayed throughout his villas. Displeasing Kim could mean imprisonment, as it did for the guard sent to a gulag for using one of Kim’s favorite ashtrays.
“As time went on, I saw the real evil,” recalls Lee, who defected to South Korea in 2000 and wrote a tell-all book two years later about his experiences. “He’s a man who is not qualified to be a world leader.”
For Lee, guarding Kim meant a sort of imprisonment inside a gilded jail. Forbidden from visiting home, he harbored a constant fear of Kim’s spies, placed within the ranks of those serving him. When Lee finally emerged from the bubble, he realized the lie the regime plays upon its people.
Years later, Lee still has trouble sleeping. He says he drinks to excess to snuff out memories, like one of his Marlboro cigarettes. He has found a certain solace working with his ducks, protected against intruders by two trained German shepherds.
Yet he still can’t escape Kim, whom he sees almost daily on the TV news. The former bodyguard senses that the years have only made the ailing 70-year-old leader even more dangerous.
“He has the tail of a tiger,” Lee says. “But if he lets it go, all his evil and wrongdoing will be discovered. The tiger will bite him.”
Lee first met Kim Jong Il on a snowy morning in 1979 when an American-made Lincoln Town Car rolled up outside a lavish residence in Pyongyang, the capital. Barely 18, a poor boy from the countryside, Lee had spent two years training for an elite assignment, surviving national tryouts to join 120 bodyguards who oversaw Kim’s every move.
On that morning, the brash leader-to-be — who would assume power when his father, Kim Il Sung, died 15 years later — emerged with a friendly, if innocuous, greeting. “What’s going on?” he said, patting Lee on the shoulder, directing him to spread salt on the icy driveway.
“I was scared to be in the presence of this heavenly creature,” he recalled. “And here he was talking so casually to me, this young, very neat, very pretty man.”
Lee rose at 5:30 every morning, and his every thought was of his boss, who liked to shoot his guns in the countryside, leaving his bodyguards to collect the kill for dinner. “He was a good shot, always playing with his gun,” Lee says. “He said you only got better by practicing.”
Along with other guards, Lee feasted on such imported scarcities as mandarin oranges, bananas and pineapples, not to mention bear and tortoise meat. With his sumptuous lifestyle, the younger Kim quickly gained weight and began wearing his famous loose-fitting safari suit to cover his bulging belly.
Among underlings, his mere presence inspired anxiety. Pressing a button in his limo, Kim would set off a series of red lights at his residence that announced his approach. That’s when some officials would run for cover rather than face the junior leader. Once home, Kim surrounded himself with sycophants such as a small group of elite women who entertained him with talk of politics and economics.
Guards were sometimes punished, such as the one who used the ashtray in Kim’s private elevator. Kim proclaimed the man “haughty” and sent him and his family to prison, Lee recalled.
Over the years, walled off inside Kim’s inner sanctum, never leaving Pyongyang, Lee was led to believe that the quality of life among average North Koreans had vastly improved from the hardships he knew as a child. But those assumptions were dashed in 1988 when his cousin landed a job as a driver, and because of Kim’s rules against having more than one family member in his employ, Lee chose to leave his insider’s job.
On the train ride back to his remote hometown near the Chinese border, he witnessed a North Korea in tatters.
“The whole country was miserable. On the train there was vinyl instead of glass on the window, even though it was in the middle of winter,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, “I Was a Bodyguard for Kim Jong Il.”
“I saw all the people enduring, suffering starvation and bitter cold. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I realized that I have lived a life that was so far from reality.”
The extent of Kim’s subterfuge hit home when he saw his parents, who “didn’t recognize me at first because I looked so healthy,” he wrote. “I couldn’t recognize their faces because they looked so malnourished and old. They were only 50, but they looked older than 70 with their bent backs.”
In return for his loyalty, Lee realized, he had been deceived. He felt like a fool, strangely complicit in the regime’s cruelty. Resolving to flee North Korea, he secured a low-level government position and used his status as a former Kim bodyguard to receive a visa to visit China.
Once there, Lee was caught trying to defect and sent to the infamous Yodok gulag for more than four years, where he faced torture and starvation, losing 90 pounds, half his body weight.
After his release, Lee successfully defected to China. There, he snuck aboard a merchant ship that eventually took him to South Korea.
On a cold February morning, Lee opens the door to a blue Quonset hut on his property. “Ducks,” he says. “Ten thousand ducks.”
For a while, Lee believed Kim’s agents would abduct him, but the years have dulled that fear. He herds a gaggle of complaining ducklings, grabbing two stragglers by the necks to gently toss them inside their pen. Nearby, his German shepherds bark, pacing in circles.
He lights his first Marlboro of the morning. The work is hard, wallowing in duck manure, sometimes barely making ends meet. But he is happy with his trade-off, leaving the lair of a rogue despot for a simple life in the middle of nowhere.
“You can’t even compare the two,” he says. “Even though I’ve experienced hardship and failure here, it’s all good. I’m free.”
Jung-yoon Choi in The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.