For 30 years, Kim Jong Il has scripted, directed, and produced an international play called "North Korea." Its main star: himself.
In 1974, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's revolutionary father figure designated his son, Kim Jr., as successor. From the start, the often wild and pampered Kim, given to artistic pretentions, began a power grab alternately brilliant and wicked, say people who knew both men.
In 1994, Kim Jr. formally took the reins of power after his father's death. But as early as 1985, he had wrested daily control from his aging father. His takeover tool, according to Hwang Jang Yop, the North's top defector, who was chief of ideology and a tutor of Kim Jong Il, was called Ten Principles for the Establishment of One Ideology - written by Kim and based on a profound sense of the Kim family's destiny to rule Korea. It claimed "sole guidance" for Kim - and in practice, meant that all communication to and from Kim Sr. now went through his son.
"By the 1990s, Kim Sr. was just an adviser to his son," says Hwang Jang Yop. Under Kim's direction, the North evolved from a socialist dictatorship that could feed itself to a cult dynasty where feeding people is a secondary priority and nuclear weapons are the ultimate "chip" in dealing with the outside world.
In recent years, Kim's image in the West has vacillated between the skilled interlocutor who greeted former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a man who jokes, surfs the Internet, follows the NBA, and knows he must open up his failing isolated state and the figure formerly regarded as shadowy, enigmatic, and scary, if not monstrous. Perhaps it is both, say analysts in Seoul.
US officials in recent weeks have agonized over whether the tough talk of the Bush team has foolishly provoked Kim to play his nuclear cards, or whether Kim is the one who has overplayed his hand and is on the run. Perhaps it is both, say some observers here.
In Western media, much is made of Kim's habits and eccentricities. To be sure, there is much to say: Official Pyongyang media reports that he was born under a special star and can "expand space and shrink time" - a rare talent in a man who is afraid to fly and won't board an aircraft. Kim likes to work at night. He approves and often revises editorials in Rodong Shinmun, the official daily as part of a personal workload and oversight of details that is massive.
He obsesses about loyalty and has a motto that "keeping secrets is the essence of party loyalty," - he even monitors colleagues' wives. Kim issues orders by paper rather than face-to-face, and can be jealous of others who perform well. Mr. Hwang remembers Kim once pitting subordinates against each other, creating a publically televised "ideological struggle" and watching the fight from his office.
Kim's holdings in European banks may top $2 to 4 billion, proceeds from a personal gold-mining company. He loves Western film and art. He is a gourmet who, on a visit to Moscow by rail, had fresh rock lobsters flown to the train daily. On another occasion, Italian cooks and their entire kitchen were flown to an ocean liner docked on the North Korean coast, where Rome-based chef Ermanno Fumillo made 20 to 30 pizzas a day for Kim's entourage. (Kim's favorite is salmon pizza; he doesn't like it salty or spicy. Mr. Fumillo was asked once at 1 a.m. to revise the menu, balked, then, "cursing, I struck out various dishes containing anchovies and capers.")
Kim has a legendary weakness for women and parties. He's been married four time, coerced many actresses, and funded specially trained females in official "dancing teams," "happiness teams," and "satisfaction teams."
In the 1990s, during a mass starvation that took 2 million lives, Kim continued a costly complex in Pyongyang called the "Longevity Institute," dedicated to research in prolonging his life. He has a set of lavish palaces, including one at the summit of a mountain with an air strip and a system of tunnels that would awe a prairie dog. He enjoys an enormous floating amusement park with two water slides that can be towed to various family coastal resorts.
"The cabinet prime minister [would] constantly agonize over a few hundred thousand dollars, while Kim Jong Il threw away the same amount of money on a single night of boozing," Hwang recalls.
Yet apart from Kim's reported exploits, those who studied him most closely say certain fundamentals are key to understanding him. Topping the list is that Kim inherits from his father a detailed dogma or ideology called Juche, with its own dense logic and theology, that is used to control the Korean population.
Under the Juche idea as expounded by the younger Kim, all power and love of the North's people must be given to Kim. Everything from taxes, food, electricity, foreign currency, and work quotas, to education, politics, military, and propaganda perpetuates the idea that Kim is a divine figure to be served.
Closely aligned to Juche is a nearly holy writ that the Kim family must one day rule the Korean peoples on both sides of the demilitarized zone. Koreans in the north are not officially called Koreans, they are called "Kim Il Sung's people."
"Kim's sense of personal and family identity, and the myth of the state, is that the Kim dynasty is the rightful ruler of the peninsula," says Stephen Bradner, head of a US military research team in Seoul. "This operates as a bandit or guerrilla mentality. You have friends and enemies, there's no in between, and it is ratified at the core by the military."
Yet today, most of the North's ruling elite, and Kim himself reportedly, no longer believe in the infallibility of Juche - but feel it is necessary to perpetuate the system. In this sense, Kim has moved his state from the charismatic leadership of the father, to the caretaker role of the son. When a million people marched in Pyongyang last Saturday, they did so behind two giant photos, one of Kim and one of his father.
In this sense, Kim is not free as an absolute ruler. He needs to continually invoke the father and be faithful to the Juche idea. That is the theater Kim is directing. But it makes him and his circle frustrated "voyeurs on the world," as one Seoul based expert points out. The North Korean elite is knowledgeable, sophisticated, and can watch world events. "But they are unable to participate," the expert says, since to do so would open the regime to ideas and influences that would end "the carefully constructed illusions necessary to the stability of the regime."
"One thing is clear: Kim's leadership is relatively stable due to his father's role," says Kim Tae-hyo, professor at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. "As long as Kim remains the son, and the protector of Juche, he is safe."
But in recent years, North Koreans are whispering that the son does not have the same love for the people as his father. Kim has formed new stratas of local committees, through the Army and the five to six secret intelligence services that now exist to ferret out disloyalty, sources say. Even minor party members or local officials must submit to purification sessions in which fault is found if not enough love is shown to Kim. If one doesn't have enough love, he or she is punished.