Behind North Korea's bizarre 'Kimdom'

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.

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.

Kim loves movies: His collection of films tops 20,000. He dislikes traveling by plane, and, according to a recent memoir by a former top Russian official, he loves gourmet meals. Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky accompanied the North Korean leader on lengthy train trips across Siberia in 2000 and 2001, and his new book describes lavish meals of fresh lobster, wine, and, on one occasion, roast donkey. These four-hour affairs ended with rousing singalongs of Soviet-era tunes, led by a chorus of four "lady conductors."

But the "history" Bush was referring to was not so much Kim's personal past as his more recent political moves. The White House charged the North Korean leader with a personal role in cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to halt enrichment of uranium in return for fuel oil and other considerations.

North Korea's blatant disregard for its obligations under the 1994 pact - and its open admission of its uranium enrichment program - are maladroit even by Pyongyang standards, say US experts. They have driven the European Union, Japan, and China closer to the US position of no negotiatons, even as South Korea has argued for more open dealings with the North.

But Pyongyang's obvious intent to force a confrontation, as seen in its expulsion of international monitors, is of a piece with its past diplomatic style, say many.

North Korean negotiation "tends to be a shakedown technique with a touch of frenzy," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

The goal: Extract as much aid as possible from other nations, while keeping the current neo-Stalinist regime intact.

Mr. Eberstadt generally approves of the Bush administration's tough line toward this behavior, which might help Pyongyang "unlearn" its blackmail-like approach. But "it would have been nice if the administration hadn't needed a nuclear wake-up call" before fashioning a coherent North Korea policy, he says.

Others believe that it is the US administration, not the North Koreans, that might blink first - and that the US would not really lose anything by doing so. The current US position, essentially, is that North Korea has to give up its nuclear ambitions, and then America might do something in return. Given the North Koreans' evident bullheadedness, that is not going to work, says Mr. Romberg of the Stimson Center.

"Anybody who has spent any time dealing with the North Koreans knows that it isn't going to work to say, 'You go first,' " he says.

At the same time, if Pyongyang takes further steps and begins to stockpile fissile material for a nuclear arsenal, it is possible that the US could be pushed toward military action, according to Romberg.

Diplomatic moves

With North Korea and Iraq on his agenda, Undersecretary of State John Bolton left Friday for a week-long Asia trip.

After talks in Washington early this week with Japanese and South Korean officials, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will fly to Seoul for further discussions.

South Korea announced it would send Yim Sung-joon, presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security, to Washington from Tuesday to Thursday.

- Wire services

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