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Seeking Attention and Secrecy, N. Korea Keeps Them Guessing

Kim Jong Il formally named head of this Communist state, but will likely remain reclusive.

For North Korea's 50th birthday Sept. 9, thousands of dancers and soldiers will conduct gala celebrations in the capital's massive public squares, with official promises of a glorious future.

But to the outside world, this isolated nation seems to be looking backward, not forward.

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Four years since succeeding his father as ruler of this isolated and closed nation, Kim Jong Il has been tightening his grip on power and elevating the status of the military while the economy continues to crash and widespread hunger persists.

He was effectively named the head of state on Sept. 5 by the rubber-stamp national assembly. The Constitution was changed to honor Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, with the title of "eternal president." The nation's top position was given to the chairman of the National Defense Committee, a title that the young Kim already held.

Foreigners observers wonder if Mr. Kim can revive Communism's most tenacious state, and what they can do to engage the enigmatic - and threatening - leader. The latest threat: On Aug. 31, North Korea launched a new rocket that can carry weapons of mass destruction an estimated 1,250 miles.

Kim's totalitarian regime faces a potentially fatal dilemma. His control depends on North Korea's isolation (and military patronage). But without a potentially destabilizing economic opening, its failed system will continue to rot as the population starves.

The government's style of rule has changed since "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung died in 1994. It remains threatening to South Korea, and the new rocket has served to escalate tensions even as it gives North Korea leverage in negotiations with the United States.

Several months ago, North Korea warned America it would sell missiles to rogue Middle Eastern countries to earn foreign currency. If the US didn't like it, it could fork over some food, or cash, and lift economic sanctions.

But the latest rocket may have been too provocative, costing North Korea much needed aid. After it flew over Japan and the second stage splashed down into the Pacific, officials in Tokyo were furious.

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Days after the launch, North Korea said the rocket had carried the country's first satellite. The United States and North Korea's Pacific neighbors are trying to substantiate the claim.

Food aid was cut (Japan gave a half million tons of rice in 1995 and millions in indirect food aid in 1997), normalization talks suspended (North Korea could get big money in compensation for Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule), and the international program to give North Korea a light-water nuclear power plant was suspended (Japan would contribute $1 billion).

The US Congress, too, may reevaluate a power-plant agreement that was signed in 1994 to suspend North Korea's clandestine bomb program.

"They miscalculated," says Yang Sung Chul, a South Korean lawmaker. "[Kim Jong Il] lost far more than what he can gain from this test firing."

Still, the outside world asks: How to discipline North Korea? By withholding aid, North Korea may become even more isolated. That's destabilizing and works against bringing North Korea into the community of law-abiding nations.

And if the US conducts a strike against the new missile site or a reported clandestine nuclear-weapons facility, it could easily touch off a huge war in Korea costing millions of lives.

South Korean leaders believes isolating the North would make matters worse. While Japan pulled away, South Korea held steady to its "sunshine policy" of engagement. "[Through] contact and cooperation [we should] penetrate as much as we can into North Korea," says Yang. If more North Koreans understand the outside world, he argues, they will know what is wrong with their country and demand change.

That might work, if Kim Jong Il would let them. But who is this man behind the Dr. Strangelove sunglasses and the pompadour haircut?

According to Hwang Jang Yop, the highest level official to defect from North Korea and Kim's boyhood tutor, Kim is ruthless and smart. He doesn't like crowds, works at night, won't listen to advisers, and is determined to make war. In the shadows, Kim has been running North Korea since the mid-1980s, says Mr. Hwang.

South Korean officials say Kim is more interested in survival than war. But everyone from Kim on down is desperate - the people are living off roots and grass. Spies commit suicide to avoid capture. Kim personally appoints even low-level military officers to guard against rebellion.

The main thing holding North Korea together is a culture of fear replete with ubiquitous informants and dreaded concentration camps.

Even as it tries to attract foreign investment to a remote area of the country, North Korea still seeks comfort in isolation. Last week, it flatly rejected South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's latest bid to exchange special envoys with North Korea. Kim Jong Il knows that like the nuclear project and economic cooperation - things meant to build mutual understanding and dialogue - it's a Trojan horse.

North Korea is cornered. "If they're not burned by [Kim Dae Jung's] sunshine, they'll be frozen to death in the cold night. Who's going to feed them? Their choice is very limited," says Yang. The only solution is to take initiative in reforming the economy, he says.

If Kim Jong Il becomes desperate, war is a last-ditch act. Even if he doesn't order it, division commanders could take matters into their own hands. And that's something nobody wants.

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