Profile / Kim Jong Il

If the summit is a victory lap for Kim Dae Jung, it is more like a coming-out party for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Observers will be trying to ascertain whether Kim Jong Il is taking North Korea in a new direction or trying to squeeze more food, fuel, and cash from an eager talking partner. More fundamentally, they will be trying to divine who he really is.

South Korea's intelligence agency had long portrayed North Korea's leader - officially the chairman of the National Defense Commission - as a world-class oddball. The agency described him as a reclusive binge drinker who pulled the strings behind deadly terrorist attacks.

So South Koreans were shocked when their president told a Japanese television interviewer in February that "Kim [Jong Il] has a level of judgment, knowledge, and discernment befitting a [national] leader." The comment was the beginning of a charm offensive and re-appraisal of the North Korean.

Analysts now credit Kim Jong Il for surviving what they assume to be a Byzantine political world in Pyongyang and pulling off the first Communist hereditary succession in history.

Long groomed for leadership by his father, Kim Il Sung, the son reportedly held the real power in North Korea even before the elder Kim died in 1994.

Despite reports of a thwarted coup attempt in 1995 and several years of famine, Kim appears to have solidified his control over the country, although he is still considered beholden to the military.

His initial cooperation with South Korea may have taught him that a gradual opening is more manageable than the economic collapse and threats to his regime that might result from keeping North Korea closed. The summit, say analysts, is happening because Kim Jong Il feels confident enough to have it.

His visit to Beijing last month - his first trip abroad in 17 years - helped reinforce his new image. Kim met with with President Jiang Zemin and visited a computer factory, saying he hadn't realized how far China had come.

"On meeting Kim Jong Il for the first time, the [Chinese] Communist Party leaders decided that Kim was not as radical and bent on war as they previously feared," says a Chinese official and North Korea expert who asked not to be identified.

He says that Kim was behind the North's lashing out at China for introducing free-market reforms two decades ago, when "Beijing was labeled a traitor to the world socialist movement."

The Chinese official says that Kim has modeled his ruling style after Chairman Mao Zedong, and has repeated the worst mistakes Mao made during his 1949-76 reign.

"North Korea is now in the middle of [their versions of a] Great Leap Forward [when collectivization led to millions of deaths from famine] and a Cultural Revolution," when Mao destroyed most of his fellow revolutionaries and ruled through a brutal personality cult.

"But Kim knows that his policies have caused widespread starvation, and he is starting to realize that he must reform North Korea's economy," the official continues.

And even though the North Korean leader presides over one of the most isolated nations on the planet, the official adds, "Kim Jong Il likes to surf the Internet and watch satellite TV."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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