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Behind North Korea's bizarre 'Kimdom'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2003


North Koreans are taught that their leader, Kim Jong Il, was born in a cottage near a sacred mountain - and that at the moment of his birth, rainbows appeared in the sky.

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Over the years North Korean agents have kidnapped more than a dozen Japanese civilians, blown up South Korean airliners, and routinely infiltrated other nations' territory.

Pyongyang also apparently has the cash to pursue nuclear ambitions. Yet its economy is so bad that millions of its citizens are thought to have starved in recent years.

Few dispute that North Korea is one of the strangest and most repressive nations of modern times. Yet strange does not necessarily equate with unpredictable. For all its bluster and brinkmanship in the current crisis over its nuclear-weapons program, North Korea may be behaving logically, at least from its point of view. That gives some experts hope that Pyongyang's standoff with the US can be kept under control.

This week is likely to be crucial as the Bush administration tries to consolidate a united front with South Korea, Japan, China, and others in an attempt to get North Korea to reverse its decision to reactivate nuclear facilities.

The US challenge is crafting a policy that other countries support while dealing with an adversary whose diplomatic style owes more to the Mafia than to Metternich.

"From their own perspective they act rationally," says Alan Romberg, a former State Department Asia expert now at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "They are predictable."

Some observers believe this rationale relates, in particular, to the perceived threat posed by being listed by the US as part of an "axis of evil" - a designation that may have made the country's leaders feel pushed into a corner. As a result, some see North Korea taking whatever steps it can to avoid being in a similar position as Iraq, another "axis of evil" country. The goal, in this scenario, is to win a non-aggression pact with the US.

Another possible rationale: Using its nuclear program as part of a high-stakes bid for much-needed foreign aid.

With this as a backdrop, high-ranking allied diplomats have been making visits, and as early as today the administration might issue a joint statement.

Assistant US Secretary of State James Kelly will likely then travel to the region for further consultations.

In recent days the Bush administration has toughened its rhetoric. Last Thursday the president himself put the blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of North Korea's current leader, who "starves his own people," according to President Bush. "It's important for the American people to remember the history of Kim Jong Il," he said.

It's a history without parallel in modern times - at least, according to Pyongyang's version. North Korean political theology treats the Kim family as semidivinities around which the nation revolves.

Mr. Kim was likely born in the Soviet Union when his family was living there under the protective tutelage of Stalin. After returning to North Korea, his father, Kim Il Sung, ruled with a Stalin-like fist, while his son grew up as something of a playboy.