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Why missile tests worked for Kim Jong Il

The North Korean leader can use the crisis to boost his status at home, analysts say.

It's summertime in Pyongyang, and if you are Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, life may be pretty good. The tension and crisis needed to keep your regime active and edgy are in full swing.

Certainly, Mr. Kim's thoughts and strategy are a mystery. But, longtime Pyongyang watchers say, it is clear that Kim does not want integration into the liberal, global order. Rather, his role is as a divinely mandated leader whose people live to serve him. In that role, Kim has much to be upbeat about in the past week after his missile test, and can tell himself a story such as this, they say:

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You are supreme general of the fifth-largest army in the world, and your missile program just made a major military statement. You were told not to test missiles, and you did. As a result, the world jumped. You are getting more media than Iran. Most importantly, you provoked the Americans, your sworn enemy for 50 years – and they did nothing. Chinese envoys arrived Monday with a message from President Bush. Propaganda in the near term is easy: You show the Americans crawling to get you back to talks. You are the son of great leader Kim Il Sung, and you run the country, control the thoughts, and guide the people. Aides follow you with notepads, taking down every word, and publishing it as pure gold. You can go back to six-party talks, or not, depending on what's to get.

Over the years, the West's perceptions of Kim are caricatures. He's a petulant "shrimp" (to use his own words) with out-of-control hair who wears high heels, snacks on caviar, kidnaps film directors, avoids air travel, and loves the Internet. Most of these snapshots came prior to 1994, when Kim took over from his father, who was greatly beloved by North Koreans. Yet most interlocutors say he's a shrewd and self-aware individual, though not a larger-than-life revolutionary figure like the senior Kim.

The crucial misconceptions about Kim run deeper, analysts say. For example, he is not, as often portrayed, a Marxist, a Stalinist, or even a fascist. He is a military-cult nationalist whose father's ideology of juche – a policy of extreme national self-reliance – operates in a heavily guarded Orwellian state.

Moreover, despite rumors, there is little evidence that Kim is in anything but complete control. While sometimes portrayed as worried about a US attack, North Korea has rarely if ever shown such fear. In fact, just the opposite is true: North Korea has often provoked the allied nations. Soviet archives show that Kim's father tried to cajole Moscow into attacking South Korea in the 1960s, despite a US nuclear threat.

"On the whole the regime and Kim are pretty confident right now," says Alexandre Mansourov of the Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies in Honolulu. "He has things where he wants them."

Some observers think Kim may return to the table. "Now that he's shot the missiles, Kim can go back to the talks," says Scott Snyder, Korea specialist with the Asia Foundation, based at Stanford University. "He no longer has to go out of weakness. He is strong. It seems counterintuitive, but that's the logic of small states, and a traditional North Korean negotiation tactic."

Yet while Kim may want to return to the table, this doesn't mean he has in mind a US-guided outcome. He can use negotiations for whatever purpose he wishes, or not, say analysts. Some think the notion that Kim is desperate for talks is a misunderstanding.

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"Kim is not begging to return to six-party talks," argues Brian Myers, at the Department of North Koreanology at Korea University. "Kim is general, the 'military-first' architect. The last thing he wants is normalization with the enemy, or talks on prosperity. That puts him out unloading aid crates at the airport. He craves tension and crisis, and that's what he's got."

Contrary to initial military analysis in the West, which focused on the failure of the Taepodong-2, Kim showed that his medium-range missiles are a threat to US bases and Japan. He is estimated to have more than 100 medium-range rockets.

"He has gratified his technical specialists and a military constituency," notes Mr. Snyder. "They demonstrated a capability for night launches, multiple launches, and the rockets send a signal that his ability to deliver in South Korea goes past just an artillery barrage of Seoul."

The mountains outside Seoul on the North Korea side are considered to be one of the densest artillery lineups in the world, capable of hammering Seoul. In the past two years, US forces have decamped from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, and have moved their main headquarters out of Seoul, a long-standing request of South Korea.

To be sure, propaganda and news out of Pyongyang continues to be highly militarized. North Korean TV put out a military-first propaganda statement from "General Kim" monitored by Yonhap news, saying, "it is not empty talk for the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] to respond with revenge to revenge by the enemy, and with all-out war to an all out war."

Many Chinese scholars agree that Kim is not a Marxist or Stalinist. "The juche idea occupies Kim's mind, and he tries to maximize his national interest," says Chen Sengjun, Korea specialist at Beijing University. "Marxism claims internationalism and rationality. But Kim puts his national interests in a supreme priority...."

Mr. Myers, of Korea University, argues that Pyongyang is a "paranoid nationalist" regime that needs an enemy to perpetually engage it so it retains a sense of purpose in the face of all odds.

North Korea has long crossed red lines to test reaction. The Pueblo incident of 1968, when North Korea captured a US patrol boat, and the gruesome Panmunjom ax murders of 1976, when North Koreans rushed the DMZ to club to death two GIs who were trimming a poplar tree – are examples.

"The North crosses every red line it can find, and does in the face of the world," says Myers, author of a book on North Korean literary styles. "This is characterized internally as signs of strength. In the 'Agreed Framework' of 1994, they presented the Americans as crawling to the negotiating table, as a surrender."

The Korean News Service says the nation is ready for total war: "We should respond to the enemy's knife with a sword and to the enemy's gun with a cannon."

Korea was bisected after World War II in what many historians now call a thoughtless if not reckless bit of diplomacy. The brutal and bloody Korean War never truly ended, but was halted in 1953 with an armistice.

The North became a protectorate of Moscow, and to some extent Beijing. The sea-locked South integrated with the international community. Seoul is capital of what has become the 10th-largest economy in the world, a considerable achievement for 48 million people.

The North began to languish seriously after the Soviet Union broke up, living hand-to-mouth in a state of poverty, scarcely able to put gas in its few vehicles or power its cities. Most resources are spent on the army, the elite in Pyongyang, and in a massive disciplinary state security apparatus. In recent years, China has begun to help its neighbor with aid.