Kim Took 'Calculated' Risk with Nuke Bargaining Chip; Other Cultural Views Remove Image of a Madman

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Byline: Andrew Salmon, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

SEOUL - Kim Jong-il, North Korea's secretive leader, is one of the world's most unreadable figures. Analysts agree that Mr. Kim's nuclear test Oct. 9 was the latest in a long march he has undertaken to secure his survival and that of the regime, but they differ over how many Rubicons he may have to cross in the future.

His leadership puzzles outside observers. Some Korea watchers suggest viewing him not through the prism of other communist regimes but rather ancient Korean monarchies, or even the chaebol the family-run conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy.

Observers see North Korea's missile and nuclear programs as bargaining chips in discussions with the United States. Pyongyang has said it wants financial sanctions lifted and bilateral discussions with Washington. The United States has refused these requests, citing U.S. law on the financial issue and the primacy of six-party talks on the negotiations issue. The nuclear test is seen as the latest attempt to move Washington.

"I think the nuclear-test decision was very calculated; risk was factored in," said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader." "North Korea is not the Taliban. Kim leads a state that wants to come in from the cold, but remain intact."

Military-first policy

Commander in chief of North Korea's armed forces since 1991, Mr. Kim is preoccupied with national security. The only time he has spoken in public was in 1992, when he exalted the armed forces at a military parade. In Pyongyang, most slogans refer not to his father Kim Il-sung's "juche" philosophy of self-reliance but to the younger Mr. Kim's "songeun" his military-first policy.

When North Korea's economy began to disintegrate in the early 1990s the same time as the fall of European communism Pyongyang maintained 2 million troops in a nation of 23 million inhabitants. The military received preferential rations during the famines of the late 1990s that killed as many as 2 million North Koreans. Missile exports became a major foreign-currency earner.

Given the fate of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was executed in 1989, Mr. Kim is equally preoccupied with personal security. He is rarely seen in public; when he is, it is often with military units. Where he lives is unknown. Footage exists of him with a huge revolver. A former bodyguard who defected to South Korea called him a good shot, and recalls Mr. Kim exhorting his escorts to train harder.

By Western standards, Mr. Kim cuts a bizarre figure. His purported taste for the good life, his unusual appearance and the secrecy surrounding him make him a figure of caricature, as in the animated satire "Team America:World Police." Though some call him a madman, long-term Korea watchers, who have seen him play a weak hand with skill and daring, disagree.

"The analyses of him and how he expresses his authority, by the CIA and others, see him from a distance and from a different cultural perspective," said Mr. Breen. "They are pretty shallow."

Control and corruption

North Korean society can be understood in terms of control and corruption, said Kim Tae-woo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis in Seoul.

Koreans traditionally have favored strong leaders. Mr. Kim's popular image was visible, albeit to a lesser degree, in authoritarian South Korean President Park Chung-hee, the ex-general who forged the economic miracle.

"Socialist regimes were not built around devolvement of power from one generation to another. Neither Stalin nor Mao passed power to their children," said Hank Morris, a specialist on Korean business at consultancy IRC Ltd. "North Korea looks like a fascist monarchy."

"Some liberal South Koreans believe North Korea is the 'legitimate' Korea, created from the old kingdoms," added Mr. Kim of the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis. …