THE crisis over whether North Korea is hiding a nuclear weapons project has put a sharp spotlight on Kim Jong Il, the emerging enigmatic leader who appears to be using the crisis to consolidate his inherited rule over an enfeebled and cloistered nation.
In two decisions - first, on March 8, to put North Korea on a "semi-war" footing and then, on March 12, to announce a pull-out from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - Kim Jong Il has revealed that he has finally taken over the foreign policy reins from his aging father, Kim Il Sung.
A resolution of the crisis could depend on how much authority and legitimacy the junior Kim has won during the crisis from the military and other elite groups in Pyongyang, analysts say.
"Kim took a political gamble to display his boldness," says Professor Masuo Okonogi, a Korea expert at Keio University in Tokyo.
Officials from the United States, Japan, and South Korea are coordinating their respective negotiating stances toward North Korea to see how much they can concede to convince the North to stay inside the NPT.
North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT after being faced with a March 25 deadline to accept a "special" inspection of two suspected nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA's suspicions that the North had extracted bomb-grade plutonium from a nuclear plant had been supported by United States intelligence, a linkage that irked the Communist regime in Pyongyang. Taking command
The North also decided to mobilize its people into a state of war readiness in reaction to joint exercises of the South Korean and US military from March 9-19. Known as Team Spirit, the maneuvers were revived after a year's lapse because North Korea would not allow South Korean to inspect its nuclear sites.
But Kim Jong Il, who became supreme military commander only last year, has used the "semi-war" status to rally support for himself at a time of severe shortages of fuel, food, and hard currency.
North Korea's economy has shrunk in the past three years as it has lost aid from the former Soviet Union and China, both communist allies, generating reports of political unrest.
"The economic problems and the need to mobilize the troops against Team Spirit have shown the North Korean military that they are very much on the defensive," says Dr. Kil Woo Jeong, a senior fellow at South Korea's Research Institute for National Unification. "They finally see that they are headed for economic difficulty.
"Kim's weakness is on the military side," he adds. "His decision sends a signal to the military to seek their support." Fewer military credentials
The younger Kim lacks the military credentials that his father claims from the Korean War (1950-53) and the guerrilla struggle against Japan before World War II.
He and his father have spent nearly two decades trying to win over older veterans and intellectuals to accept a dynastic succession, while purging those who show any dissent.
Kim's order for "semi-war" readiness included organized rallies at factories, mines, and farms at which people were asked to pledge themselves to the "Dear Leader," as the younger Kim is known. The controlled press referred to him as "the most outstanding strategist in our age" and said his order "evoked great repercussions upon the soldiers."
North Korea claims that the rallies persuaded 1.5 million youths to volunteer for the Army. The present size of the Army is only 1.1 million.
"Kim Jong Il decided to use this crisis to show that he can make decisions on both domestic and foreign affairs," said Dr. Ok Hwan Tae, research director at the South Korean institute. Kim Il Sung, who retains the post of president, turned over domestic duties to his son during the 1980s. Quashing dissent
The extent of political dissent is uncertain, but in February North Korean radio reported that Kim has been "successful in liquidating all the sectionists and revisionists that had existed in the party." South Korean analysts interpret the report as indicating either that Kim still faces old opponents or that a new kind of opposition has emerged.
The North has set out conditions to stay within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: that the IAEA should drop its demand for a special inspections and start inspections of US bases in South Korea; that the Team Spirit war games should be stopped; and that the US should begin direct negotiations with Pyongyang. Since its withdrawal from NPT would not be official until mid-June, the North has time to see if it can win any of its demands.
While the US and its allies were shocked at the threatened withdrawal from the nuclear pact, analysts also say that the threat of economic sanctions against North Korea could make it back down.
"It's a very dark situation for North Korea," Dr. Okonogi says. "It doesn't want to commit economic and political suicide, so it may compromise before sanctions are possible."