He’s been cursed in the street, appeared in a movie and perfected the wave of North Korea’s “Dear Leader.” Now Kim Jong-il’s leading look-alike feels that part of himself died along with the late ruler.
Passers-by stop and stare as a short, stout man with a bouffant hairdo, large glasses and olive green suit stands at the door of his small engraving shop in northern Seoul.
For more than a decade, Kim Young-sik has been moonlighting as an impersonator of North Korea’s longtime leader.
However, since Kim Jong-il died on Dec. 17, the 61-year-old father of two fears he may have to hang up his tailor-made suits after an illustrious career that saw him appear on Japanese TV and in a Middle East chocolate commercial.
“I feel very empty, as if a part of me died. People try to comfort me, saying some figures are more famous when they’re dead, but I don’t think it will be the case with Kim,” Kim Young-sik siad.
As a child, he never dreamt of becoming a communist ruler, and fell into the role almost by accident.
“One day after I got out of the shower and my hair was very curly, people told me I looked like Kim Jong-il,” he said, during a break from serving customers at his store in a working-class district of the South Korean capital.
His break came with a role in the 1995 South Korean film The Rose of Sharon Blooms Again, about a South Korean scientist who secretly helped the North develop nuclear weapons to prevent a Japanese invasion.
Since then he’s rubbed shoulders with celebrities and world leaders — or at least people who look like them — including George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin impersonators.
His career began to take off after then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung began the “Sunshine Policy” of reconciliation with the North in the late 1990s.
“People started to notice me and invite me to all sorts of television stations,” he said.
Outside his home country the real Kim Jong-il was often seen as a figure of fun, lampooned in the 2004 hit puppet movie Team America and an easy target for comedians.
However, it’s not always easy playing the role of a man who presided over a deadly famine, locked tens of thousands of his own people up in prison camps and tested a nuclear bomb.
“Some people curse at me and call me ‘dictator,’ but those who know me wave and shout ‘Kim Jong-il!’ Then I would wave back at them and show them some of Kim’s moves,” Kim Young-sik said.
Keeping up appearances takes some work. He perms his hair every three months and before Kim’s death closely followed changes in his look and demeanor, even going on a diet when the late leader lost weight following a 2008 stroke.
“Back when Kim Jong-il was young, I used to use hairspray, but after he got old and started to lose hair, I didn’t have to do anything,” he said.
He has four different suits made in the style of the late ruler along with five pairs of platform shoes.
“Before, I used to wear the outfits almost every day, but now I just wear them once in a while and when I’m invited to be Kim Jong-il at an event. It’s a shame I won’t be able to wear them anymore,” Kim Young-sik said.
He regrets never having had the chance to meet Kim Jong-il, or even visit North Korea, which in the past denied his visa request.
“Kim was a great man in a way because although he was a dictator, he built a country like no other. Do you think anyone could do it?” Kim Young-sik said.