AS suspicion grows that North Korea might develop a nuclear weapon within a few years, outside experts are paying more attention to a man whose finger may someday be on the trigger.
He is Kim Jong Il, first son and heir-designate of the present leader, President Kim Il Sung, who has ruled since 1948 and will be 80 years old on April 15. Both men are reclusive autocrats in a Stalinist nation whose official press refers to Kim Il Sung as "Great Leader" and his son as "Dear Leader."
The younger Kim is being given more titles and duties in what is expected eventually to be the first dynastic succession in a communist country. Unlike his father, though, Kim Jong Il can claim no war credentials to boost his prestige.
Last December, he was given the title of supreme commander of the armed forces. Already within the Workers' (Communist) Party he ranks No. 2 to his father.
And in February, the party published the "Selected Works of Kim Jong Il," a move further eulogizing him into a cult figure like his father. Last year, a book claimed the younger Kim is the greatest man in the world because he can "see and understand everything 400 kilometers away."
Tomorrow, North Korea-watchers gather in Seoul for a seminar devoted solely to the topic of Kim Jong Il. "The father is now old enough to either pass away or to pass on much of his power to his son," says Tae Hwan Ok, a director at South Korea's Research Institute for National Unification. "We must get a better idea of whether the son can control his country."
Despite a stream of North Korean propaganda about Kim, "we know so little," Dr. Tae says. For example, his only known foreign trip in the past decade was to China in 1983.
Even his birth year is in doubt. The North claims 1942. The South says 1941.
Because North Korea remains one of the last isolated nations of the cold war era, foreign analysts must sift through scant clues to patch together profiles of the country's mysterious communist leaders.
Kim's profile became more important recently after United States satellite photographs detected a nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant near the capital, Pyongyang. Many US analysts say North Korea could develop a bomb by 1995, although North Korea denies such plans.
What worries some analysts is that Kim Jong Il might resort to a nuclear encounter with the south if he is threatened by domestic opponents.
"If Kim Jong Il is crazy, he might start a war," Tae says. "If he's civilized, then we can talk with him."
In a shift of policy, South Korea recently began seeking "peaceful coexistence" with its cold war rival rather than quick reunification, partly to avoid the problems Germany has had.
"Kim Jong Il, or perhaps a collective leadership, needs to be the main figure for stability to prevent a flood of refugees from the north," says Kang Young Hoon, the former prime minister who first opened talks with the North in 1990.
While some analysts have speculated that the succession might come during the father's birthday celebration on April 15, such a step now seems years away.
One reason may be that Kim Il Sung wants to keep tight control after seeing communist regimes fall elsewhere. Or, his son may not command complete loyalty. Recently, the father had to publicly ask "that the whole Army would be faithful" to his son.
"There is no reason for Kim Jong Il to allow his father to fade away, but rather he wants to use his father's charisma to improve his own authority," says Gong Ro Myung, a South Korean diplomat. "When such a good umbrella is available, why discard it?"
ABOUT 80 percent of real power has already been transferred to the son, claims Suh Dae Sook, a Kim Il Sung biographer who often visits the North and serves as director of Korean studies at the University of Hawaii.
"A lot of people think he is going to fall as soon his father dies," Dr. Suh says. "But that's wishful thinking."
Those who claim the son will fall quickly cite the possibility of a revolt by thousands of North Koreans who have gone abroad and have come back aware of how poor their country is.
"They all know that the economy is approaching a cliff," Tae says, "but while Kim Il Sung is alive, everyone is afraid to speak out for change."
Perhaps as a way to win favor for the younger Kim, the government announced a 43.4 percent wage hike for most workers on Feb. 16, his 50th birthday.
"Kim Jong Il has to be seen as benevolent," Suh says. "His father did not have to. He just had to whip the people."
Among experts, there are sharp differences over how to judge the younger Kim. One school says he is able and well-trained, eager to try Chinese-style economic reform, says Tae. The other claims he is scandalous and dangerous.
South Korean intelligence sources describe him as unstable, arrogant, narrow-minded, and reckless. They blame him for two terrorist acts: the bombing of a Korean Air jet in 1987 and the 1983 bombing of the South Korean Cabinet.
One Western official who has met Kim Jong Il a few times says he is "an interesting chap, quite sober and logical."
Two aspects of Kim are widely accepted: He is an avid film buff and he made big mistakes running domestic programs during the 1970s. "His father corrected his working habits," Suh says.
Many charges against Kim, such as his alleged terrorism, are unsubstantiated, Suh says. "Everyone thinks he is a hideous monster. But he might be a surprise.
"He will be more congenial, a more efficient leader. He has to be. He cannot be a leader like his father, who ruled with an iron fist and Spartan life."