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Anatomy of a Megalomaniac: Psychological Analysis of Kim Jong-il from Afar

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What was up with a world leader who thought he could control the weather while engaging in his passion for Elizabeth Taylor movies? No one knows for sure, but a few years ago, two psychologists took a crack at a long-distance analysis. In the September 2009 edition of Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression (Editor’s note: nice journal name), Frederick L. Coolidge and Daniel L. Segal tried to develop a psychological profile of the “Dear Leader” (in 1992 changed to “Dear Father”).

Coolidge had developed a means of psychological evaluation using “informants,” people who knew or had historical or other expertise about a person. This test had been used previously to assess Hitler and Saddam Hussein and had been found to have a high-level of statistical reliability.

The two psychologists used the test with a South Korean psychiatrist who was an expert on Kim Jong-il. The results showed that Kim Jong-il had an identical overall statistical measure with Hitler and Saddam on 14 personality disorders (r=7.6). (The top six of the 14 are: sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal.). Additional analysis showed that Dear Father was more like Saddam than Der Fuhrer. All three also showed evidence of psychotic thinking.

Coolidge and Segal make recommendations about how to engage in diplomatic talks with someone with this type of personality. “In negotiations with Kim Jong-il over nuclear weapons, he might trust higher-level government officials more than lower ones,” they write. “Perhaps, more reflective of Kim Jong-il’s narcissistic traits, he initially balked over six-country negotiations, demanding to meet with the United States only. It would be predicted that secondary or lower level emissaries might have immediately been at a disadvantage.”

It would also behoove negotiators, they noted, to recognize that Kim Jong-Il prides himself on the hardships the country has experienced:

“Kim Jong-il’s antisocial features, such as his fearlessness in the face of sanctions and punishment, serve to make negotiations extraordinarily difficult. Even ‘submitting to negotiations’ makes many antisocial individuals unwilling and hostile. Kim Jong-il appears to pride himself on North Korea’s independence, despite the extreme hardships it appears to place on the North Korean people. This behavior appears to emanate, in large part, from his antisocial personality pattern.”

The article itself is a good read. Carl Jung, it turns out, took a crack at analyzing Hitler. (Worth the price of admission for that factoid alone, although maybe it’s best here not to go too far into Jung’s checkered Nazi karma. Also, see this great, much more detailed piece, by Scientific American blogger Jason G. Goldman (“The Thoughtful Animal”), which  also takes a look at Coolidge and Segal’s work.)

This kind of thing intrigues psychologists. One other such comparative analysis even looked at George Bush vs. Saddam. The Science of Who’s Bad. Better than watching “American Idol.”




Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. thevillagegeek 3:27 pm 12/19/2011

    “Anatomy of a Megalomaniac: Psychological Analysis of Kim Jong-il from Afar”

    Am I the only one who thought, just for a moment, that this analysis might be coming the Afar region of eastern Africa?

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  2. 2. plswinford 2:39 pm 12/20/2011

    Kim Jong-il was resolute in resisting the effects of a whip on the back of one of his peasants. What courage!

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  3. 3. johnwnorton 4:46 pm 12/20/2011

    Mr. Cranky here with a question about how the the word “factoid” is used above: “Worth the price of admission for that factoid alone…”

    Quoting a dictionary, the suffix -oid means resembling, but incomplete or imperfect, such as in humanoid, planetoid, or ovoid.

    I know what people mean when they use factoid to describe an interesting bit of trivia, but shouldn’t science writers be precise?

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  4. 4. jgrosay 6:08 pm 12/20/2011

    In dealing with megalomaniacs, I can’t imagine nothing worse than the fellows that use the name Israel, meaning “I defeated God”. Theologists use to say that God is the only one able to deal with pride, it was stated that some people are stiff-necked. You better bend your head by yourselves, before somebody feels obliged to do it in the name of God. Sufferings can be just enormous. Salut +

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  5. 5. diacad 7:13 pm 12/22/2011

    I am married to a psychiatrist, and we have often discussed the folly of the popular press accepting long-distance psychiatric evaluations of prominent figures in the news. We are very surprised that Scientific American would lower itself to such a tabloid level.
    If we accept the folly of this approach, what would a North Korean psychiatrist say about the US presidents, both past and present, who engage in endless wars overseas, station US armed forces in over 100 countries, and overfly others with drones and spy planes? Remember, there is not a single North Korean soldier on foreign soil, but 43,000 US troops face them over their border. Given this, which leader of what country would such a North Korean psychiatrist say was a megalomaniac? To help you think about it, consult the books of Bruce Cumings, perhaps our leading historian of Korea: “North Korea: Another Country” (2004) about DPRK, and “Korea’s Place In The Sun” (2005 revised).

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  6. 6. jgrosay 6:57 pm 12/24/2011

    Politics is a fishy business, and recently it’s becoming root too. Anybody having a hint on the kind of services Bill Clinton gave to the people of israel, in order to have Monica Lewinski performing him a fellatio ?. This is the kind of things that do shape the fate of history and of nations, wait and you’ll see the rest….

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