SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — As Kim Jong Il continues to elude efforts to constrain his nuclear program, a grudging regard for the North Korean leader's tactical skills is rising.
Mr. Kim was once thought to be over his head as a leader. But 12 years after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the son is showing brilliance as a dictator. Some experts say that Kim, in his own way, may be shrewder than the father who built the nation.
"Kim was in many ways dealt a weaker hand than his father, but he has played it better," says Brian Myers, a North Korea specialist at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.
Certainly, Kim has become a skillful player on the world stage. He retains firm hold of the most totalitarian state on earth. His nation has survived an epic famine. Kim has astutely nullified a dawning realization among his people that the world beyond North Korea's borders is a better place. He's even created a new image for himself at home – not as a towering patriarch – but as a figure of sympathy, a beleaguered, America-taunted leader who eats soldier's gruel and deserves care by the masses. He's played a smart propaganda game in South Korea, where some elites admire him as a nationalist torchbearer for "true Korean-ness," and for outwitting the great powers.
Now, Kim has tested a nuclear weapon – the eighth nation to publicly do so – and has developed a ballistic missile program.
"Why shouldn't Kim be seen as extraordinary?" asks Alexander Mansourov of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "He's poked his finger in the eye of the US hegemon. He's tested missiles and nukes. At home he's more popular than ever."
Abroad, Kim is seen as enigmatic, reclusive – part fox, part oddball. He's reported to hold all-night parties that serve as loyalty tests. He chain-smokes, loves Ferraris, goes gaga over gourmet food, has 30 homes, wears 12-centimeter high (4.7 inch) platform shoes, kidnaps the occasional South Korean actress, and is crazy about karaoke, James Bond films, and the Internet.
Yet that image, though partly true, is itself propaganda, say former Pyongyang diplomats, high-level defectors, and Korea experts. They say the real Kim is a bit unsure, frightened of China and the US, and may suffer from a learning disability. Kim's sister-in-law told a diplomat that Kim is "often timid." His father may not have offered him much respect.
Bradley Martin, author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," says Kim may suffer from stage fright. Surprisingly for a state leader, especially a "godhead," Kim's voice has been heard only once by the nation, for a total of nine words. "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the People's Army," he said in 1992 at an obscure rally at a military base. Invitations to one state reception noted that one may speak to Kim, but that Kim would "not speak in reply," a Eastern European diplomat remembers. Kim has never appeared live on TV. Even in the period of mourning after the death of his father, the "Great Leader" – when posters stated mystically that "Kim Jong Il is now Kim Il Sung" – there was no fireside chat by Kim junior to his people.
Yet Kim reportedly micromanages the entire country. His state is a hermetically sealed cult that allows no debate; even top generals and their extended families undergo loyalty tests. A half-dozen concentration camps hold 200,000 inmates, a dozen intelligence units spy on the people and each other. North Korea has the world's fifth-largest army.
"Everything goes up to Kim, and everything comes down from him. There isn't a whole lot of lateral motion in the North," says Stephen Bradner, a civilian expert in Seoul and longtime adviser to the US military. "We often ask the wrong question. The question is not what North Korea needs, but what Kim Jong Il wants."
"I used to think Kim was irrational and unrealistic," says Lee Jong Heon, who has just published a structural analysis of the North at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "But when you study his moves, he has kept a grip on the people, and he now heads one of eight nuclear nations. He's been highly rational from his standpoint."
One side of Kim only now emerging is how closely he stays in touch with the people. The Dear Leader is on the road, working the crowds, a great deal. Studies of Korean media show Kim averages about 150 local visits a year. He may not make live televised speeches, but he's at a school, a factory, a farm, a military base – every three days. (He shows up at a military unit once a week.) This suggests a populist streak.
"When someone you worship comes to your factory, it's a personal connection. We tend to overlook this simple fact," says Mr. Mansourov, who has tracked Kim's appearances. "Kim knows the local leaders, the opinion makers, the local cadres. He's not in a fishbowl. He may be a dictator, but he's also a populist."
Kim also appears today to be intensifying his ethnic nationalist message: Korea is different, special, unique, pure – and must remain so. The message has more affinity with Imperial-era race-based fascism in Japan, than to the Stalinism he's often depicted as emulating, argues Mr. Myers.
"The North may not have plasma TVs and shiny cars, but it has people with character and virtue, that's Kim's message," says Myers. "South Korea is physically and spiritually polluted, misogynistic, occupied by the US, [has been] sold down the river, [and] lets its young people grow soft. The real Korean spirit is being held in trust in the North – that message appeals."
There's another fact often overlooked, say North watchers: Kim is getting older. There may be a new urgency to resolve the nuclear question, to seal his dynasty.
Kim was born "Uri" or George, in Khabarovsk lower Siberia in 1942 or '43 (the date is disputed), in a medicine supply house of the Soviet 88th Reconnaissance Brigade, according to South Korean scholar Suh Dae Sook. Kim Il Sung's guerrilla brigade had been bloodied in Manchuria by the Japanese, and he escaped to Russia with his wife. Young Kim was cared for by Korean and Russian servants. This early mix of foreign contact continued later in Pyongyang, so Kim never entirely imbibed Korean habits, where "sameness" is prized. He was early an individualist – adopting different hair-styles, dress, shoes, and behavior.
That "difference" has helped set Kim apart. Now he has nuclear capability. Yet the depths of Kim's pride, how he views his place in history, or how he would react in a threatening crisis, is not clear. In the former Soviet Union and China, and presumably in India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons are held by "mediating structures" of party and military decisionmaking committees. But Kim alone controls the dreaded button in the North.
It is unknown if Kim might ever find it "rational" to use his weapons, say experts. For example, might Kim behave like a jilted husband or postal worker who shoots his family or co-workers, then turns the gun on himself? Mostly, it is felt that Kim wants to avoid the fate that befell dictators such as Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, who was overthrown and killed.
"If we aren't careful, Kim could see using his weapons as rational," argues Mr. Lee.
Army lore in North Korea, in fact, has Kim telling his generals that if " 'we are ever losing in a war, I will destroy the world if I can. I will not go down quietly,' " Mr. Martin points out.
Despite Kim's adroit nuclear card playing, Asia watchers say any appraisal must weighed against what Kim might have done with his rule. Fifteen years ago, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, there was genuine hope in Asia that Kim might be a new kind of leader. He might open up the economy, tone down the cult worship, act more like former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Kim could have created special economic zones as China did. Yet Kim has systematically quashed his own reforms, including those of a brilliant technocrat, Kim Dal Hyon, former deputy prime minister of the economy who experimented with the free market in the Tumen River project.
In one sense, Kim is prisoner to his own fantastic ideology of isolation. To allow outside influences into the regime could snap the spell of his own Oz-like deification, experts say.
"North Korea actually has everything," says Krzysztof Darewicz, a Polish journalist based in Pyongyang during the 1990s. "There's a wealth of valuable minerals, uranium and gold. It is smack-dab in the crossroads of Asia's current economic rise; trade and wealth surround the North. But what has it become? Nothing.
"Kim inherited a nuclear card with no idea what to do next," he adds.
"Kim is one hell of a tactician, but what is his strategy and where will it lead?" asks Martin. "What about his people?"
North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il ...
• Was born in Siberia in 1942 or 43.
• Is 5-foot, 3-inches tall and wears 12-centimeter (4.7 inch) high platform shoes.
• Has only been heard by North Koreans once, in 1992, in a national broadcast. He said: "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the People's Army."
• Has never appeared speaking live on TV in North Korea.
• Has the world's fifth-largest army.
• Gives his top generals loyalty tests.
• Averages about 150 visits per year to schools, military bases, factories.