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Mystery Man: Who is Kim Jong II?


As governments across the globe try to defuse a nuclear crisis with communist North Korea, Kim Jong Il, the man who runs the country, remains something of a mystery. Relatively few facts are known about Kim Jong Il, the leader of Stalinist North Korea. While his nation has squared off with the international community over its nuclear ambitions, he keeps a low profile, allowing his state's propaganda organs to speak for him.

In what appears to be a game of brinkmanship, Pyongyang has, in the last few weeks, unsealed a frozen nuclear reactor, thrown out U.N. weapons inspectors, withdrawn from a global treaty preventing the spread of nuclear arms and said it was free to resume missile tests.

Robert Einhorn led negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton Administration and is now a senior associate at the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He believes Mr. Kim is being deliberately provocative. "He is creating a very difficult situation at a time when our leaders are preoccupied with the Iraq problem," he says. "The [Bush] administration has wanted to push North Korea to the backburner but North Korea is refusing to be pushed to the backburner. It is asserting itself in way that we can't afford to ignore."

Yet Mr. Kim himself has remained silent and out of sight. In a country where there is little outside information allowed in, Kim Jong Il is the center of cult worship - known officially as the sun of the 21st century, an outstanding thinker-theoretician and a great master of leadership.

Robert Ward, a Northeast Asian analyst for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, compares Mr. Kim to a powerful medieval leader - holding sway over a large court. "Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, have been elevated from just simple political leaders to god-like semi-divine status in North Korea," says Mr. Ward. "To have him not saying anything is perhaps in keeping with the need to elevate him above the ordinary political debate, and to have him not dealing with ordinary political leaders in the West. Because as they see it, he is perhaps better than they are."

According to his official biography, Kim Jong Il was born at a sacred mountain peak on the northern border with Chinese Manchuria, which according to local legend is where the Korean nation itself came into being 5,000 years ago. But Western experts believe he was born in 1942 near Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East. His father, Kim Il Sung, who led the North until his death 1994, had fled to the then-Soviet Union to avoid persecution for guerilla activities in Japanese-occupied Korea.

Western experts believe the father and son were not close. Kim Il Sung was known as a brave war hero while Kim Jong Il was said to be an insecure and tongue-tied child. Despite this, in 1980, Mr. Kim's father chose him to become the first dynastic successor of the communist world and gave him senior government posts.

South Korean and Western intelligence experts believe he ordered a 1983 bombing in Burma, which killed 17 senior South Korean officials. They also say he had a role in planning the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight in which 115 perished. By 1991, Kim Jong Il had taken over some of the elder Kim's duties and had become the country's supreme military commander.

Kim Il Sung died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994, but his son did not succeed him as Communist Party Secretary until 1998. He never took on the title of president. Instead, he declared his father the country's "eternal president" and anointed himself Chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Kim Jong Il has maintained a commitment to his father's brand of Stalinism, which is intertwined with the Korean "juche" philosophy of extreme self-reliance and the Confucian tradition of deference to authority. North Korea's state-run media calls him a renaissance man. The Korean Central News Agency says he writes operas, designs buildings and flies fighter aircraft.

But since he took the helm, the economy has sharply declined and the people have grown more dependent on international food aid to stave off famine. International aid agencies say they feed at least one third of North Korea's 23 million people. Still U.S. policy analyst Robert Einhorn, believes there is more to Mr. Kim than meets the eye. "He has been made fun of. Even his hairstyle and other attributes have made been made fun of, but he seems to be pretty shrewd operator," says Mr. Einhorn. "He has had a pretty weak hand to play and he has played it well. I do not think we can underestimate him."

In October 2000, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea. Mr. Kim, known as a lover of film and spectacles, assembled more than 100,000 performers to entertain her with vast musical numbers at a huge stadium. The two also spent dozens of hours huddled in meetings.

Ms. Albright has since called him slippery and dangerous, but says he is not delusional. She says he may be isolated, but notes that he is not uninformed. She says he mentioned making economic changes to the North's system, but that some of his statements sounded illogical.

Since President Bush took office in 2001 and took a much tougher approach to the North, the world has generally heard less from Mr. Kim. However, that summer, he traveled to Russia on a 24-day train ride - he is said to be afraid of flying. Russian Presidential Emissary Konstantin Pulikovsky, who accompanied him, has written an account of the journey, which offers a sharp contrast to the North Korean description of Mr. Kim as frugal and hard-working.

Mr. Pulikovsky writes that they were entertained on the trip by beautiful women he believes were professional actresses and singers, and notes that the North Korean leader enjoyed 20-course meals, complete with lobster, silver chopsticks and fine French wine.

Some experts suggest he has become an ardent believer in his own personality cult. Some South Korean and U.S. officials are hopeful that he can somehow be lured into finding a peaceful solution to the current nuclear stand-off and move toward opening his nation's impoverished economy to the outside world. But others, such as Mr. Ward, warn he is likely to tread with extreme caution. "If it was not for the nuclear program, people really would not be that interested in North Korea. I think when people negotiate with him, they should be fully aware that because this is his only card, he is going to be very reluctant to give them up."

Experts say true reform or even a small shift away from absolute power could bring down the Kim Jong Il government, which North Korea's leader is not likely to let happen.

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