The Lie We Love

Foreign adoption seems like the perfect solution to a heartbreaking imbalance: Poor countries have babies in need of homes, and rich countries have homes in need of babies. Unfortunately, those little orphaned bundles of joy may not be orphans at all.

We all know the story of international adoption: Millions of infants and toddlers have been abandoned or orphaned -- placed on the side of a road or on the doorstep of a church, or left parentless due to AIDS, destitution, or war. These little ones find themselves forgotten, living in crowded orphanages or ending up on the streets, facing an uncertain future of misery and neglect. But, if they are lucky, adoring new moms and dads from faraway lands whisk them away for a chance at a better life.

Unfortunately, this story is largely fiction.

Westerners have been sold the myth of a world orphan crisis. We are told that millions of children are waiting for their "forever families" to rescue them from lives of abandonment and abuse. But many of the infants and toddlers being adopted by Western parents today are not orphans at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children around the world do need loving homes. But more often than not, the neediest children are sick, disabled, traumatized, or older than 5. They are not the healthy babies that, quite understandably, most Westerners hope to adopt. There are simply not enough healthy, adoptable infants to meet Western demand -- and there's too much Western money in search of children. As a result, many international adoption agencies work not to find homes for needy children but to find children for Western homes.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of international adoptions each year has nearly doubled, from 22,200 in 1995 to just under 40,000 in 2006. At its peak, in 2004, more than 45,000 children from developing countries were adopted by foreigners. Americans bring home more of these children than any other nationality -- more than half the global total in recent years.

Where do these babies come from? As international adoptions have flourished, so has evidence that babies in many countries are being systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families. Nearly half the 40 countries listed by the U.S. State Department as the top sources for international adoption over the past 15 years -- places such as Belarus, Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, and Romania -- have at least temporarily halted adoptions or been prevented from sending children to the United States because of serious concerns about corruption and kidnapping. And yet when a country is closed due to corruption, many adoption agencies simply transfer their clients' hopes to the next "hot" country. That country abruptly experiences a spike in infants and toddlers adopted overseas -- until it too is forced to shut its doors.

Along the way, the international adoption industry has become a market often driven by its customers. Prospective adoptive parents in the United States will pay adoption agencies between $15,000 and $35,000 (excluding travel, visa costs, and other miscellaneous expenses) for the chance to bring home a little one. Special needs or older children can be adopted at a discount. Agencies claim the costs pay for the agency's fee, the cost of foreign salaries and operations, staff travel, and orphanage donations. But experts say the fees are so disproportionately large for the child’s home country that they encourage corruption.

To complicate matters further, while international adoption has become an industry driven by money, it is also charged with strong emotions. Many adoption agencies and adoptive parents passionately insist that crooked practices are not systemic, but tragic, isolated cases. Arrest the bad guys, they say, but let the "good" adoptions continue. However, remove cash from the adoption chain, and, outside of China, the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears. Nigel Cantwell, a Geneva-based consultant on child protection policy, has seen the dangerous influence of money on adoptions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where he has helped reform corrupt adoption systems. In these regions, healthy children age 3 and younger can easily be adopted in their own countries, he says. I asked him how many healthy babies in those regions would be available for international adoption if money never exchanged hands. "I would hazard a guess at zero," he replied.


International adoption wasn’t always a demand-driven industry. Half a century ago, it was primarily a humanitarian effort for children orphaned by conflict. In 1955, news spread that Bertha and Henry Holt, an evangelical couple from Oregon, had adopted eight Korean War orphans, and families across the United States expressed interest in following their example. Since then, international adoption has become increasingly popular in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States. Americans adopted more than 20,000 foreign children in 2006 alone, up from just 8,987 in 1995. Half a dozen European countries regularly bring home more foreign-born children per capita than does the United States. Today, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States account for 4 out of every 5 international adoptions.

Changes in Western demography explain much of the growth. Thanks to contraception, abortion, and delayed marriages, the number of unplanned births in most developed countries has declined in recent decades. Some women who delay having children discover they've outwaited their fertility; others have difficulty conceiving from the beginning. Still others adopt for religious reasons, explaining that they've been called to care for children in need. In the United States, a motive beyond demography is the notion that international adoption is somehow "safer" -- more predictable and more likely to end in success -- than many domestic adoptions, where there's an outsized fear of a birth mother's last-minute change of heart. Add an ocean of distance, and the idea that needy children abound in poor countries, and that risk seems to disappear.

But international adoptions are no less risky; they're simply less regulated. Just as companies outsource industry to countries with lax labor laws and low wages, adoptions have moved to states with few laws about the process. Poor, illiterate birthparents in the developing world simply have fewer protections than their counterparts in the United States, especially in countries where human trafficking and corruption are rampant. And too often, these imbalances are overlooked on the adopting end. After all, one country after another has continued to supply what adoptive parents want most.

In reality, there are very few young, healthy orphans available for adoption around the world. Orphans are rarely healthy babies; healthy babies are rarely orphaned. "It’s not really true," says Alexandra Yuster, a senior advisor on child protection with UNICEF, "that there are large numbers of infants with no homes who either will be in institutions or who need intercountry adoption."

That assertion runs counter to the story line that has long been marketed to Americans and other Westerners, who have been trained by images of destitution in developing countries and the seemingly endless flow of daughters from China to believe that millions of orphaned babies around the world desperately need homes. UNICEF itself is partly responsible for this erroneous assumption. The organization’s statistics on orphans and institutionalized children are widely quoted to justify the need for international adoption. In 2006, UNICEF reported an estimated 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But the organization's definition of "orphan" includes children who have lost just one parent, either to desertion or death. Just 10 percent of the total -- 13 million children -- have lost both parents, and most of these live with extended family. They are also older: By UNICEF's own estimate, 95 percent of orphans are older than 5. In other words, UNICEF's "millions of orphans" are not healthy babies doomed to institutional misery unless Westerners adopt and save them. Rather, they are mostly older children living with extended families who need financial support.

The exception is China, where the country’s three-decades-old one-child policy, now being loosened, has created an unprecedented number of girls available for adoption. But even this flow of daughters is finite; China has far more hopeful foreigners looking to adopt a child than it has orphans it is willing to send overseas. In 2005, foreign parents adopted nearly 14,500 Chinese children. That was far fewer than the number of Westerners who wanted to adopt; adoption agencies report many more clients waiting in line. And taking those children home has gotten harder; in 2007, China’s central adoption authority sharply reduced the number of children sent abroad, possibly because of the country’s growing sex imbalance, declining poverty, and scandals involving child trafficking for foreign adoption. Prospective foreign parents today are strictly judged by their age, marital history, family size, income, health, and even weight. That means that if you are single, gay, fat, old, less than well off, too often divorced, too recently married, taking antidepressants, or already have four children, China will turn you away. Even those allowed a spot in line are being told they might wait three to four years before they bring home a child. That has led many prospective parents to shop around for a country that puts fewer barriers between them and their children -- as if every country were China, but with fewer onerous regulations.

One such country has been Guatemala, which in 2006 and 2007 was the No. 2 exporter of children to the United States. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of Guatemalan children adopted by Americans more than quadrupled, to more than 4,500 annually. Incredibly, in 2006, American parents adopted one of every 110 Guatemalan children born. In 2007, nearly 9 out of 10 children adopted were less than a year old; almost half were younger than 6 months old. "Guatemala is a perfect case study of how international adoption has become a demand-driven business," says Kelley McCreery Bunkers, a former consultant with UNICEF Guatemala. The country’s adoption process was "an industry developed to meet the needs of adoptive families in developed countries, specifically the United States."

Because the vast majority of the country's institutionalized children are not healthy, adoptable babies, almost none has been adopted abroad. In the fall of 2007, a survey conducted by the Guatemalan government, UNICEF, and the international child welfare and adoption agency Holt International Children's Services found approximately 5,600 children and adolescents in Guatemalan institutions. More than 4,600 of these children were age 4 or older. Fewer than 400 were under a year old. And yet in 2006, more than 270 Guatemalan babies, all younger than 12 months, were being sent to the United States each month. These adopted children were simply not coming from the country's institutions. Last year, 98 percent of U.S. adoptions from Guatemala were "relinquishments": Babies who had never seen the inside of an institution were signed over directly to a private attorney who approved the international adoption -- for a very considerable fee -- without any review by a judge or social service agency.

So, where had some of these adopted babies come from? Consider the case of Ana Escobar, a young Guatemalan woman who in March 2007 reported to police that armed men had locked her in a closet in her family’s shoe store and stolen her infant. After a 14-month search, Escobar found her daughter in pre-adoption foster care, just weeks before the girl was to be adopted by a couple from Indiana. DNA testing showed the toddler to be Escobar's child. In a similar case from 2006, Raquel Par, another Guatemalan woman, reported being drugged while waiting for a bus in Guatemala City, waking to find her year-old baby missing. Three months later, Par learned her daughter had been adopted by an American couple.

On Jan. 1, 2008, Guatemala closed its doors to American adoptions so that the government could reform the broken process. Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain all stopped accepting adoptions from the country several years earlier, citing trafficking concerns. But more than 2,280 American adoptions from the country are still being processed, albeit with additional safeguards. Stolen babies have already been found in that queue; Guatemalan authorities expect more.

Guatemala's example is extreme; it is widely considered to have the world's most notorious record of corruption in foreign adoption. But the same troubling trends have emerged, on smaller scales, in more than a dozen other countries, including Albania, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, and Vietnam. The pattern suggests that the supply of adoptable babies rises to meet foreign demand -- and disappears when Western cash is no longer available. For instance, in December 2001, the U.S. immigration service stopped processing adoption visas from Cambodia, citing clear evidence that children were being acquired illicitly, often against their parents' wishes. That year, Westerners adopted more than 700 Cambodian children; of the 400 adopted by Americans, more than half were less than 12 months old. But in 2005, a study of Cambodia's orphanage population, commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development, found only a total of 132 children who were less than a year old -- fewer babies than Westerners had been adopting every three months a few years before.

Even countries with large populations, such as India, rarely have healthy infants and toddlers who need foreign parents. India’s large and growing middle class, at home and in the diaspora, faces fertility issues like those of their developed-world counterparts. They too are looking for healthy babies to adopt; some experts think that these millions of middle-class families could easily absorb all available babies. The country's pervasive poverty does leave many children fending for themselves on the street. But "kids are not on the street alone at the age of 2," Cantwell, the child protection consultant, says. "They are 5 or 6, and they aren’t going to be adopted." That's partly because most of these children still have family ties and therefore are not legally available for adoption, and partly because they would have difficultly adjusting to a middle-class European or North American home. Many of these children are deeply marked by abuse, crime, and poverty, and few prospective parents are prepared to adopt them.

Surely, though, prospective parents can at least feel secure that their child is truly an orphan in need of a home if they receive all the appropriate legal papers? Unfortunately, no.


In many countries, it can be astonishingly easy to fabricate a history for a young child, and in the process, manufacture an orphan. The birth mothers are often poor, young, unmarried, divorced, or otherwise lacking family protection. The children may be born into a locally despised minority group that is afforded few rights. And for enough money, someone will separate these little ones from their vulnerable families, turning them into "paper orphans" for lucrative export.

Some manufactured orphans are indeed found in what Westerners call "orphanages." But these establishments often serve less as homes to parentless children and more as boarding schools for poor youngsters. Many children are there only temporarily, seeking food, shelter, and education while their parents, because of poverty or illness, cannot care for them. Many families visit their children, or even bring them home on weekends, until they can return home permanently. In 2005, when the Hannah B. Williams Orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia, was closed because of shocking living conditions, 89 of the 102 "orphans" there returned to their families. In Vietnam, "rural families in particular will put their babies into these orphanages that are really extended day-care centers during the harvest season," says a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Hanoi. In some cases, unscrupulous orphanage directors, local officials, or other operators persuade illiterate birth families to sign documents that relinquish those children, who are then sent abroad for adoption, never to be seen again by their bereft families.

Other children are located through similarly nefarious means. Western adoption agencies often contract with in-country facilitators -- sometimes orphanage directors, sometimes freelancers -- and pay per-child fees for each healthy baby adopted. These facilitators, in turn, subcontract with child finders, often for sums in vast excess of local wages. These paydays give individuals a significant financial incentive to find adoptable babies at almost any cost. In Guatemala, where the GDP per capita is $4,700 a year, child finders often earned $6,000 to $8,000 for each healthy, adoptable infant. In many cases, child finders simply paid poor families for infants. A May 2007 report on adoption trafficking by the Hague Conference on Private International Law reported poor Guatemalan families being paid beween $300 and several thousand dollars per child.

Sometimes, medical professionals serve as child finders to obtain infants. In Vietnam, for instance, a finder's fee for a single child can easily dwarf a nurse's $50-a-month salary. Some nurses and doctors coerce birth mothers into giving up their children by offering them a choice: pay outrageously inflated hospital bills or relinquish their newborns. Illiterate new mothers are made to sign documents they can't read. In August 2008, the U.S. State Department released a warning that birth certificates issued by Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City -- which in 2007 had reported 200 births a day, and an average of three abandoned babies per 100 births -- were "unreliable." Most of the hospital's "abandoned" babies were sent to the city's Tam Binh orphanage, from which many Westerners have adopted. (Tu Du Hospital is where Angelina Jolie's Vietnamese-born son was reportedly abandoned one month after his birth; he was at Tam Binh when she adopted him.) According to Linh Song, executive director of Ethica, an American nonprofit devoted to promoting ethical adoption, a provincial hospital’s chief obstetrician told her in 2007 "that he provided 10 ethnic minority infants to [an] orphanage [for adoption] in return for an incubator."

To smooth the adoption process, officials in the children's home countries may be bribed to create false identity documents. Consular officials for the adopting countries generally accept whatever documents they receive. But if a local U.S. Embassy has seen a series of worrisome referrals -- say, a sudden spike in healthy infants coming from the same few orphanages, or a single province sending an unusually high number of babies with suspiciously similar paperwork -- officials may investigate. But generally, they do not want to obstruct adoptions of genuinely needy children or get in the way of people longing for a child. However, many frequently doubt that the adoptions crossing their desks are completely aboveboard. "I believe in intercountry adoption very strongly," says Katherine Monahan, a U.S. State Department official who has overseen scores of U.S. adoptions from around the world. "[But] I worry that there were many children that could have stayed with their families if we could have provided them with even a little economic assistance." One U.S. official told me that when embassy staff in a country that sent more than 1,000 children overseas last year were asked which adoption visas they felt uneasy about, they replied: almost all of them.

Most of the Westerners involved with foreign adoption agencies -- like business people importing foreign sneakers -- can plausibly deny knowledge of unethical or unseemly practices overseas. They don't have to know. Willful ignorance allowed Lauryn Galindo, a former hula dancer from the United States, to collect more than $9 million in adoption fees over several years for Cambodian infants and toddlers. Between 1997 and 2001, Americans adopted 1,230 children from Cambodia; Galindo said she was involved in 800 of the adoptions. (Galindo reportedly delivered Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian child to her movie set in Africa.) But in a two-year probe beginning in 2002, U.S. investigators alleged that Galindo paid Cambodian child finders to purchase, defraud, coerce, or steal children from their families, and conspired to create false identity documents for the children. Galindo later served federal prison time on charges of visa fraud and money laundering, but not trafficking. "You can get away with buying babies around the world as a United States citizen," says Richard Cross, a senior special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who investigated Galindo. "It’s not a crime."


Buying a child abroad is something most prospective parents want no part of. So, how can it be prevented? As international adoption has grown in the past decade, the ad hoc approach of closing some corrupt countries to adoption and shifting parents' hopes (and money) to the next destination has failed. The agencies that profit from adoption appear to willfully ignore how their own payments and fees are causing both the corruption and the closures.

Some countries that send children overseas for adoption have kept the process lawful and transparent from nearly the beginning and their model is instructive. Thailand, for instance, has a central government authority that counsels birth mothers and offers some families social and economic support so that poverty is never a reason to give up a child. Other countries, such as Paraguay and Romania, reformed their processes after sharp surges in shady adoptions in the 1990s. But those reforms were essentially to stop international adoptions almost entirely. In 1994, Paraguay sent 483 children to the United States; last year, the country sent none.

For a more comprehensive solution, the best hope may be the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement designed to prevent child trafficking for adoption. On April 1, 2008, the United States formally entered the agreement, which has 75 other signatories. In states that send children overseas and are party to the convention, such as Albania, Bulgaria, Colombia, and the Philippines, Hague-compatible reforms have included a central government authority overseeing child welfare, efforts to place needy children with extended families and local communities first, and limits on the number of foreign adoption agencies authorized to work in the country. The result, according to experts, has been a sharp decline in baby buying, fraud, coercion, and kidnapping for adoption.

In adopting countries, the convention requires a central authority -- in the United States' case, the State Department -- to oversee international adoption. The State Department empowers two nonprofit organizations to certify adoption agencies; if shady practices, fraud, financial improprieties, or links with trafficking come to light, accreditation can be revoked. Already, the rules appear to be having some effect: Several U.S. agencies long dogged by rumors of bad practices have been denied accreditation; some have shut their doors. But no international treaty is perfect, and the Hague Convention is no exception. Many of the countries sending their children to the West, including Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, and Vietnam, have yet to join the agreement.

Perhaps most important, more effective regulations would strictly limit the amount of money that changes hands. Per-child fees could be outlawed. Payments could be capped to cover only legitimate costs such as medical care, food, and clothing for the children. And crucially, fees must be kept proportionate with the local economies. "Unless you control the money, you won’t control the corruption," says Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, which represents more than 200 international adoption organizations. "If we have the greatest laws and the greatest regulations but are still sending $20,000 anywhere -- well, you can bypass any system with enough cash."

Improved regulations will protect not only the children being adopted and their birth families, but also the consumers: hopeful parents. Adopting a child -- like giving birth -- is an emotional experience; it can be made wrenching by the abhorrent realization that a child believed to be an orphan simply isn't. One American who adopted a little girl from Cambodia in 2002 wept as she spoke at an adoption ethics conference in October 2007 about such a discovery. "I was told she was an orphan," she said. "One year after she came home, and she could speak English well enough, she told me about her mommy and daddy and her brothers and her sisters."

Unless we recognize that behind the altruistic veneer, international adoption has become an industry -- one that is often highly lucrative and sometimes corrupt -- many more adoption stories will have unhappy endings. Unless adoption agencies are held to account, more young children will be wrongfully taken from their families. And unless those desperate to become parents demand reform, they will continue -- wittingly or not -- to pay for wrongdoing. "Credulous Westerners eager to believe that they are saving children are easily fooled into accepting laundered children," writes David Smolin, a law professor and advocate for international adoption reform. "For there is no fool like the one who wants to be fooled."


The Secret History of Kim Jong Il

Few people have the chance to watch a shy young man grow into a ruthless dictator -- and live to talk about it. But, for one North Korean professor, Kim Jong Il is much more than the man holding his country hostage. He's a former student.

I first met Kim Jong Il in October 1959. He was a senior at the elite Namsan Senior High School, and I was a 27-year-old professor of Russian at the Pyongyang University of Education. I also happened to have been chosen as a private tutor for the family of North Korean President Kim Il Sung. One day, the Great Leader remarked that he found his son's Russian to be very poor and told me to go to his school and evaluate both Kim Jong Il's proficiency and the quality of Russian education there. Handpicked by Joseph Stalin to rule over North Korea and a fluent Russian speaker himself, Kim Il Sung deemed study of the language essential to relations with the Soviet Union, North Korea's biggest political, economic, and military patron. At the school, I attended every Russian class, made evaluations, and then summoned the 17-year-old Kim Jong Il into the principal's office. The principal, one of the school's Russian teachers, and I, in accordance with Kim Il Sung's orders, jointly administered an oral Russian exam for Kim Jong Il.

Just a young student at the time, the examinee appeared to be extremely nervous sitting alone for an oral exam before the three of us -- especially one arranged at his father's behest. The shy boy with puffy, red cheeks responded meekly to each question I posed.

"Please open the book, Ri Su Bok, the North Korean Matrosov, and translate it," I told Kim.

He proceeded to read passages slowly from the book and translate them into Korean. His translations were not outstanding, but he managed to read and translate the text without making an error. 

After a while I said, "Please summarize the contents of the book."

"You mean in Korean?" Kim asked.

"No. It should be in Russian, of course," I replied.

Looking a bit flustered, he began to speak in halting Russian. His spoken Russian seemed to lag behind his reading and translation.

"OK. Next I will test you on noun/adjective inflection, verb tense, and the first/second/third-person form."

When his father ordered me to evaluate Kim's Russian, he had praised his son's grammatical skills. He was right. When I rapidly threw out words at him, he replied without the slightest hesitation.

"Finally, I will test you on Russian conversation. Please listen to my questions and remarks and respond accordingly." I asked Kim Jong Il routine questions like his name and birthday, the date and day of the week, and the weather, yet he had a hard time responding. During the final conversation phase, he blushed and beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. Without ever boasting that he was the son of the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il patiently endured the exam.

My evaluation of Russian education at Namsan High School was that the instruction of spoken language had fallen behind that of grammar. When informed of my finding, Kim Il Sung became irate and demanded that any Russian teacher at Namsan High School who was not fluent in Russian be dismissed. I recommended a new, conversation-focused Russian program and suggested holding the annual nationwide Russian teachers' convention at Namsan the following year.

The following January, Russian teachers from across the nation convened at the high school. At the convention, Kim Jong Il showed off his new Russian skills with confidence. The combination of a new curriculum and the prodding by his father had paid off: Kim's nervous, diffident demeanor from the exam a few months back had disappeared. As an educator, I was quite gratified by his impressive progress.

Nearly 50 years have passed since the day I administered that test, but I still remember the questions I posed to Kim Jong Il, and the answers he gave in his amateur Russian: "I love and respect my father more than anyone else." "I plan to enroll in the Kim Il Sung University upon graduation from Namsan Senior High School." "I enjoy watching films more than playing sports."

It doesn't sound like an extraordinary moment. Just a teacher and a student behaving as they would anywhere. Of course, I've seen enough now to know just how far from ordinary anything about North Korea ever is.

Had I died fighting the Americans in the Korean War -- which I almost did -- I might not have ever come to know just how morally bankrupt were the ideals I was defending. But I survived. I went to college. I learned Russian. I was lucky enough to teach the language I loved to generations of students, some of whom went on to hold positions of power and influence throughout the country. I became dean of the foreign-language department. I wasn't particularly wealthy or privileged. But, through my travels beyond the Hermit Kingdom, and my contacts, and that special secret responsibility of tutoring Kim Il Sung's family for 20 years, I did have something most of my fellow citizens never did and still don't: a window through which to understand the dynasty that continues to terrorize North Korea.

I wish I could argue that the shy and determined young man I first met that October day is the real person behind the cruel and mercurial dictator the rest of the world now knows him to be. But too much has happened since then.

In 1991, during a stint as a visiting professor in Moscow, I was approached by a South Korean agent. He brought me incredible news. He could arrange a meeting with my older sister, who had fled to the South during the Korean War and later moved to Chicago. Arranged by South Korea's national intelligence agency, it would be the first time we had seen each other in more than 40 years. All that time, we thought the other was dead. I was overcome with emotion. She begged me to come back to the United States with her and become a minister -- our mother's dying wish for me. Although I could not return with my sister, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our joy was short-lived. Another agent who had allowed us to use his house as a meeting spot was, in fact, a double agent working for the North. I received instructions from the government to return home the very next day. But I knew very well I couldn't; I would be killed as a traitor. I anguished over what my failure to appear would mean for my family back in Pyongyang. It's bad enough for a soldier or a student to defect. But I knew intimate details of the ruling family's inner circles. Surely they would view my betrayal as a personal insult.

I never returned to North Korea, and I never saw my family again. A few years later, I heard from a well-placed South Korean minister that my family had been sent to a gulag and murdered, the innocent victims of my treasonous crime. To this day, I know nothing of the details of their deaths, or whether they blamed me as they perished.

I ache when I imagine what Kim Jong Il did to my family. So many times, I've imagined killing him and then killing myself. Countless days and nights I have pounded my chest with guilt and grief, unable to forgive myself for the ghastly fate that I have brought my beloved wife -- my lifelong companion -- our daughters and son, their spouses, and even our dear grandchildren.

But I am willing to let go of my painful grievance against Kim Jong Il. My only wish is that he opens North Korea's doors and lets the hungry, tired people enjoy the kind of freedom and abundance that South Koreans, Americans, and so many others do. Until then, I will let the rest of the world see what I've seen: a young, innocent boy who turned into a monster, and a country with so much promise transformed into a concentration camp.


In September 1973, Kim Jong Il's daughter, Sul Song, was to enroll at Namsan Primary School. Surrounded by tall, green poplar trees where birds rested and sang, the school had the air of a natural park. Beyond the rear of the school's stadium atop Haebang Hill sat the mansions of the highest officials.

Its pastoral setting was reserved for children of the elite -- party officials above the rank of vice minister. They enjoyed all the perks that come with a rarefied spot in North Korean society: the best teachers, the best facilities, and just a few days of mandatory farm work every spring (as opposed to the average 60 to 90 days). Graduates of Namsan were guaranteed a spot at any university of their choice and an open door to a successful career. Isolated from the children of ordinary people, the students at Namsan would go on to become officials of the party and state.

Naturally, Kim Il Sung's children had studied at Namsan, including Kim Jong Il. Throughout his years there, Kim was a rather ordinary student. From academics and art to sports and extracurricular activities, he excelled in none. He made few friends. Upon graduation, Kim and his siblings all enrolled at Kim Il Sung University. His daughter's life was planned out much the same way -- until that September day.

The school's staff waited by the entrance gate with flower bouquets in hand. As the minutes passed and the bell rang, Sul Song failed to show up. The staff grew increasingly anxious. One hour later, the school received the following one-line notification from state authorities: "Kim Sul Song will not enroll in Namsan School." Disappointed, the teachers and staff, who had been preparing for Kim Sul Song's enrollment, were simply left to wonder if she would be studying abroad instead.

They didn't have much time to linger: That day also marked the enrollment of another important first-grader. He was none other than Kim Min Chul, the nephew of Kim Il Sung's second wife. I remember that day extremely well, for I had been selected to evaluate the 6-year-old child's aptitude for advanced education. That day, Kim Il Sung's mother-in-law came to see her beloved grandson begin his schooling. Several other relatives milled about, and the school bustled with the unusual presence of so many important people.

Kim Jong Il was incensed to know that his only daughter would be sharing the spotlight throughout her early education with a child from the "side branches," those relatives who lay outside the main family line. So, he had decided to hire a private tutor for his daughter rather than send her to Namsan. Withdrawing his daughter from the school was a public revelation of his hostility toward his extended family, but, on its own, it wouldn't eliminate those potential rivals to his own children. Which is why Kim Jong Il had his alma mater, where he had spent so much of his youth, blown up.

Several years later, in 1982, as he was consolidating power within the party, Kim Il Sung's mother-in-law (and a close friend of mine) described how Kim Jong Il finally executed his plan. First, he brought up the school at a meeting of high officials.

"Comrades, what do you think of the fact that Namsan School is located right in front of our Central Party office building?"

His sycophants got the message.

"Dear Comrade Leader, is it not advisable to have a school inside the Central Party district?" was a typical response. "I think it best that Namsan School find another site and be relocated."

Kim Jong Il became more and more pleased with each nod of agreement.

"I have thought so for some time. I have long believed that the presence of a school within the party district is inappropriate, and I am opposed to having party officials' children educated at a special school like Namsan. Why should party officials receive special consideration, and why should their children be educated by themselves, cut off from the rest of the people? Let's put an end to dividing the party officials and the general public."

Now, the original intent behind the school was to sequester the children of high officials in an attempt to thwart the spread of sensitive state secrets. But, as in so many communist societies, the school actually served to keep the lavish lifestyles of high officials hidden from the rest of the population. While the children of ordinary North Koreans ate cornmeal with soybean soup and soy sauce chemically made from soybean dregs and unseasoned kimchi, the students of Namsan ate high-grade white rice with meat, fish, and eggs. Should the wider population discover such a contrast in lifestyles, the image of the socialist state was bound to suffer.

A few nights after Kim's meeting, the Namsan School was blown up by a demolition squad of the North Korean Army. On the very same plot of land, a new office building was erected. It would house the party's Organization and Guidance Bureau. As the Namsan School vanished into thin air, so too disappeared the hopes of the school's teachers and staff, students, and parents of students who had looked to Kim's other relatives as potential successors to Kim Il Sung. By demolishing the school, Kim Jong Il was effectively declaring that he, and only he, was the rightful successor.

Even today, long after becoming the sole supreme leader of North Korea, Kim refuses to allow graduates of the Namsan School in his inner circle. After all, those who have known Kim Jong Il since youth are bound to see him as human -- not the center of a god-like cult of personality.


At the Three Revolutions Exhibition Hall in northwestern Pyongyang, there hangs a big sign that reads, "A world without North Korea need not survive." What do these words mean? And what do they tell us, if anything, about Kim Jong Il's military mind?

In late 1993, when North Korea was gearing up to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, fears of an imminent war broke out across the Korean Peninsula. The eyes of the world were firmly fixed on the region. Not a day passed without some international coverage of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

In the midst of such concerns, Kim Il Sung convened a meeting of all his military officers above the rank of commanding general. One general who was in the room later explained what happened next. Kim posed to his generals the following question: "The American scoundrels are about to start a war against us. Will we be able to defeat them?"

The generals replied without hesitation: "Yes, we can win!" "When have we ever lost a war?" "We shall win every battle!" "How can we ever lose when we have you, Commander of Steel, our Great Leader, to lead us?" "Oh, Great Leader! Just give us the order!" "In a single breath we will rush to the South, drive out the American imperialists, and unify the fatherland!"

Despite such vigorous displays of bravado, Kim Il Sung did not appear satisfied. "That's all very well," he replied. "But what if we lose? What shall we do if we lose?"

Kim Il Sung's prodding was unexpected. The moment that their Great Leader uttered the word "lose," the generals' lips closed and remained tightly shut. As they sat still in extreme anxiety, the 51-year-old Kim Jong Il suddenly stood up. Raising his clenched fists, Kim yelled out, "Great Leader! I will be sure to destroy the Earth! What good is this Earth without North Korea?"

Kim Il Sung looked at his eldest son and smiled.

"That is surely the answer. I am pleased to see that a new North Korean general has been born at this very gathering. Henceforth, I transfer to you the operational command of the North Korean military."

A short while later, Kim Jong Il was named the commander in chief of the Korean People's Army. And a big sign inscribed with Kim Jong Il's words, "A world without North Korea need not survive," was duly installed at the exhibition hall, the nation's flagship display of achievements in industry, technology, engineering, and agriculture.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and with a tide of democratization and reform spreading across the world, Kim Jong Il chose to buck the trend and implement a "military-first policy." True to his familiar slogan, "The military is the core force of the revolution and the pillar of the state," Kim called for the militarization of the entire society. He believed that even though North Korea was a small state, he could stabilize the nation and make the country powerful and prosperous by growing the military.

Today, just as he hoped, Kim Jong Il's vision has been realized -- albeit through a continuing policy of military extortion. Whereas international trade and finance have only played a marginal role in North Korea's economy and security, Kim has managed to extract resources from wealthier and stronger states by manufacturing crises and generating international instability. His brand of nuclear blackmail is a virtual guarantor of bottomless international aid for the world's most militarized society.


Living under a totalitarian regime requires a daily suspension of disbelief. Nowhere is that more true today than in North Korea, where otherwise ethical people contort themselves into untenable moral positions because they've bought into the oft-repeated notion that their country is "Paradise on Earth." Simply to survive in North Korea, citizens must believe they are living in a chosen land. And when ideological indoctrination morphs into reality, the dictator need not even be nearby to spread fear. Not if average people will do his bidding for him.

All of which is bad news for those who don't fit into Kim Jong Il's ideal of a healthy, vital citizenry. In the people's paradise that is North Korea, disabled -- even short -- people are considered subhuman. In 1989, Pyongyang hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students. In preparing for the international gathering, the entire nation was encouraged to outdo South Korea's hosting of the Summer Olympic Games the year before. Pyongyang's event had to be bigger and more glamorous. One such method was to purify the revolutionary capital of Pyongyang of disabled people.

Six months before the festival, the government rounded up all disabled residents of Pyongyang and sent them away from the capital to remote villages. The majority were clockmakers, seal engravers, locksmiths, and cobblers who made their living in the city. Overnight, they were forcibly deprived of the lives they had known.

I saw this policy of "purification" up close. I have an old friend who, upon graduation from the Pyongyang University of Medicine, built a career in the state Academy of Medical Science. We were classmates at Heungnam High School and fought together in the Korean War. We were like brothers. One day during May 1989, he visited me at home looking deeply upset.

"What's troubling you? You look very distressed," I said to my friend.

"Well, I'm OK, I guess... but I've done a terrible thing. An abhorrent thing."

"What do you mean? You aren't a bad person."

His eyes welled with tears.

"I have made cripples out of normal, healthy people and sent them away for good," he said. "It is inhumane, what I have done. I shall never be able to hold my head up again."

My friend, a well-connected physician at the time, told me that he had been ordered by the Communist Party to pick out the shortest residents of Pyongyang and South Pyongan province. Against his conscience, he went out to those areas and had local party representatives distribute propaganda pamphlets. They claimed that the state had developed a drug that could raise a person's height and was recruiting people to receive the new treatment. In just two days, thousands gathered to take the new drug.

My friend explained how he picked out the shortest among the large group. He told the crowd that the drug would best take effect when consumed regularly in an environment with clean air. The people willingly, and without the slightest suspicion, hopped aboard two ships -- women in one, men in the other. Separately, they were sent away to different uninhabited islands in an attempt to end their "substandard" genes from repeating in a new generation. Left for dead, none of the people made it back home. They were forced to spend the rest of their lives separated from their families and far from civilization.

"I can hardly believe that I've done such a terrible thing," he told me.

My friend, who still lives in North Korea, will spend the rest of his days tormented with guilt. At the same time, he did not forget to beg me over and over that this incident was a state secret and that I was not to tell a soul, not even my wife. I kept his secret for some 16 years. There seems little point now in protecting a party, a government, and a leader that failed to do the same for its people.


In late June, the United States took the dramatic and highly symbolic step of removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. As one component of the ongoing six-party talks to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear program, the trade-off doesn't seem so bad. But a lack of hard evidence doesn't mean something isn't true. Although the current chatter revolves around Kim Jong Il's possible ties to a nascent Syrian nuclear program, one episode from 25 years ago reminds me of the very real dangers the North Korean regime poses to international stability.

A bright former student of mine had risen to become a high-ranking official in the Central Party's Department of Propaganda and Agitation. One day in October 1983, he invited me and two other professors to his home for dinner. He lived in a luxury apartment complex for officials of the Central Party with the rank of director or above, where he shared a unit with his son, himself a special reporter for the official North Korean news agency.

All of a sudden, as we were in the middle of dinner, our host's son ran into the room out of breath.

"Dad, we have a serious problem," he said. "Have you heard the news?"

Our hearts skipped a beat. What could possibly have transpired to put an experienced news reporter in such an agitated state?

"This just came in over the wire. They botched the job. It's a serious situation. The bald goon survived and his underlings died instead. Our news report is now worthless, and they sent all of us home."

Our host excused himself suddenly and rushed back to his office. The three of us left the apartment puzzled and concerned.

Within two days, news of a terrorist attack had spread far beyond my friend's apartment. At the time, we were told that a bombing in Burma had narrowly missed its target: the traveling South Korean president. In Pyongyang, nationwide rallies blamed an inside job by a rogue South Korean agent and, more broadly, the "American imperialists." Calls for the liberation of the South through revolutionary war were rampant. Only then could I guess at the reason for the commotion at my former student's place two nights before: His son had been informed of the operation ahead of the actual bombing in Burma and had written the news report in advance under the assumption that the operation would be a success. He assumed the South Korean president, as well as his entire entourage, would be dead. At his rank, our dinner host, my former student, not only would have known about the attack, he probably would have helped plan it.

In North Korea, there is a special unpublicized wing of the Communist Party called Bureau 3 that oversees all operations vis-à-vis the South. Another former student who works in Bureau 3 said that the director of a special team assigned to the Burma operation was dismissed suddenly. We later learned that he was demoted to party secretary at a small factory in the eastern coastal city of Sinpo for botching the secret mission of assassinating the South Korean president.

The Aung San terrorist bombing of Oct. 9, 1983, claimed the lives of 17 South Korean cabinet members, including Deputy Prime Minister Suh Suk Joon and Foreign Minister Lee Beom Suk. Fifteen more suffered major injuries. A year later, the Burmese government reported to the United Nations that the country had carried out the Aung San terrorist bombing and severed diplomatic relations with North Korea. I only learned those facts many years later, upon coming to Seoul. At the time, I was oblivious to the truth and was busy being summoned every day to rallies condemning the South Korean regime for the bombing.

Now, when I hear of tragic events on the peninsula, such as the incident in July in which a North Korean soldier shot and killed a 53-year-old tourist from the South, I think of the lies that the North must be telling its citizens. That is, if they hear anything at all.


Thirty years have passed since I last saw Kim Jong Il. Upon leaving Pyongyang, I spent some 10 years in South Korea. And now I am living in the United States, the land of my so-called mortal enemy.

A world away, I think of Kim often. Any day, I imagine he will be taken out by the single bullet of an aggrieved underling. Who could blame such a person? He has driven his people to starve to death. He is the only person in the country who enjoys basic freedoms and human rights. He has managed to shut the eyes, ears, and mouths of the North Korean people.

And yet, I hope that he does not meet such a tragic end. At times I pray for him. More than anything, I am saddened by how he has changed since that day we met so long ago. Sometimes, I even feel guilty, for I could claim to be indebted to his family. Because of his father's immense zeal for education, I studied for free and became a university professor.

Today, I remain optimistic. News of the outside world has been silently seeping into North Korea. Day by day, the number of people leaving the country grows. More than 10,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea, and tens of thousands hide in China. Try as Kim might to intimidate his people with guns and knives, they are abandoning him more and more. But even if he refuses to open North Korea's heavy and sturdy doors, the currents of history have grown strong enough to break them open like floodgates.

If Kim Jong Il ever realizes that opening up North Korea is in his interest, I will return to Pyongyang the very next day. I want to devise the best education system in the world based on my observations and experiences in Seoul and the United States. But I am already more than 75 years old. I can feel myself growing weaker by the day. Before I grow so infirm that my experiences become useless, I would love to meet Kim Jong Il one last time and give him one last lesson. I, who became a university professor thanks to his father; I, who traveled to Russia, Seoul, and now Washington. I no longer loathe him. I pity him. Even though he killed my family, I have already forgiven him.

For More Online

For a photo essay tracing the notorious and bizarre moments of Kim Jong Il's life, visit: ForeignPolicy.com/extras/kim.

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