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Kim Jong Il's bizarre life as a pop culture icon

By Barry Neild, CNN
updated 8:04 PM EST, Mon December 19, 2011
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 8, 2011 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (C) visiting the Pyongyang Mechanical Pencil Factory in Pyongyang.
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 8, 2011 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (C) visiting the Pyongyang Mechanical Pencil Factory in Pyongyang.
  • Kim Jong Il leaves behind an unlikely legacy in popular culture
  • North Korean grandiose portrayal of its leader inspired comedians
  • Twitter trends reference "Team America," a film that featured a puppet Kim

Laura Ling, the American journalist detained in North Korea in 2009, and her sister, Lisa Ling, join Anderson Cooper on Monday for an exclusive look at the North Korean regime. Tune in to "AC360ยบ" at 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- Kim Jong Il was a source of misery for North Korea's impoverished people and of fear for a world wary of his belligerent rhetoric -- but as an enduringly bizarre presence on the global stage, he was also an unexpected source of entertainment.

While the reputedly ruthless leader was revered by a population weaned on propaganda, outside the hermetic Asian country what were seen as grandiose attempts at myth-making were seized on by popular culture.

Online, Kim's death generated Twitter trends that referenced the movies or shows that caricatured him as a villainous clown trapped in the bathos of his own cruel isolation.

Kim did little to help his own international image. His eccentric appearances sporting bouffant hair, over-sized sunglasses and a succession of drab boiler suits were frequently viewed as comical counterpoints to the rights abuses of his regime.

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Meanwhile, as his country's nuclear activities sparked diplomatic tensions, his media mouthpieces -- such as the Korean Central News Agency -- created their own unintentional humor as they swung wildly between angry invective and surreal flatteries of their "Dear Leader."

Kim's defining moment in recent popular culture appears to have been his portrayal in the 2004 film "Team America: World Police," a satire on U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy.

The film's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone paint the dictator as a foul-mouthed but misunderstood Bond villain whose plans for global chaos are constantly frustrated by incompetent underlings or bothersome international officials.

In the hours after his death, "Team America" references were trending on Twitter, particularly "Hans Brix," a nod to puppet Kim's mispronunciation of Hans Blix, a real-life U.N. weapons inspector who, in the film, is fed to Kim's man-eating sharks.

Another key "Team America" moment, when Kim ruefully bemoans his isolation in an opulent palace by singing about how he is lonely -- or "ronrey" -- was also being heavily referenced on social media.

Parker and Stone were no strangers to Kim-based satire. Their "South Park" cartoon series cast him as part of a villainous gang that included Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and, incongruously, magician David Blaine.

In an appearance on media satire "30 Rock," comedian Margaret Cho played Kim as a North Korean weatherman, delivering the disingenuously upbeat forecast: "North Korea, everything sunny all the time always, good time, beach party."

Fellow comic Bobby Lee plays the dictator as host of the "Kim Jong Il Show" on MADtv, shooting dead audience members who fail to cheer and delivering punchlines such as: "Don't cry because I kill your wife and enslave your children."

Post-death, there was renewed interest in websites that have sought to highlight the strange picture of North Korea created by its propaganda machine.

"Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things," is an online gallery of photographs showing the dictator staring at banal objects. The images draw unintentional bleak humor from their repeated and blatant misrepresentation of life under a dictatorship.

Among recent entries, Kim can be seen looking at a pink sweater, pointing at a persimmon tree in full fruit, glumly inspecting a statuette of knights on horseback and grinning at a supermarket shelf packed with sausages.

Another website has trawled news bulletins on the official Korean Central News Agency to create a "random insult generator" that neatly encapsulates the peculiar version of the English language favored by Kim's regime.

As regular KCNA watchers can confirm, typical generator exhortations such as "You bourgeois stooge," and "You reckless human scum, you will be dealt a thousandfold retaliatory blow!" are eerily close to the real thing.

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