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Tight rein keeps Kim in power and N. Korea poor

SHARE Tight rein keeps Kim in power and N. Korea poor

TOKYO — He sports a bouffant hairdo, giant eyeglasses and drab Mao suits and has a penchant for entertainment by beautiful magicians and leggy dancers, when he's not watching the latest Hollywood videos from his collection of 20,000 movies. While his countrymen go cold and hungry, he indulges in expensive French brandy and multicourse feasts.

Kim Jong Il, North Korea's political strongman, is easy to caricature as a foppish madman waving nuclear weapons at the world, but those who have sat across a negotiating table from him or have followed his long career say the "Great Leader" is cunning and cruel, with street-fighter instincts. His seemingly bizarre tactics have kept his nation poor and isolated but also have helped him maintain iron-fisted control long after most other communist regimes have collapsed.

And his brinkmanship with the United States, as he pursues nuclear weapons development, may be a carefully choreographed negotiating strategy designed to guarantee his own survival.

"He is intelligent and he is totally conscious about what he is doing," said Wendy Sherman, a former senior State Department official who negotiated with Kim in 2000, when the Clinton administration was considering improving relations with Pyongyang. "He's not crazy. But he does have a skewed view of the world that comes from looking at the world through a prism that is rather limited."

"He's crazy like a fox and a steel-tough negotiator," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a Korea expert who teaches at Takushoku University's School of Asian-Pacific studies in Tokyo. "How else do you think that regime could survive more than 50 years?"

"Eventually the North Koreans will compromise," Shigemura predicted. "The North Korean strategy is not to let the U.S. get too angry. . . . Just before the U.S. gets really mad, they will stop the provocations and come to the negotiating table."

It's also possible that Kim doesn't intend to bargain away his nuclear program. The United States has offered to talk with North Korea to defuse the crisis. Pyongyang has yet to respond, although it raised the ante Friday and provoked international outrage when it announced it was pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which it had agreed not to produce nuclear weapons.

As the United States, Japan and South Korea seek to walk North Korea back from the brink of confrontation over its decision to throw out international inspectors and restart its plutonium-reprocessing efforts, attention has refocused on the mysterious Kim, 60, whose brandy-swilling exploits and idiosyncratic peccadilloes go hand-in-hand with gulag control over a nation he runs like a mysterious cult.

The 22 million North Koreans have no clue that their neighbors in the South are wealthy and enjoy political freedom. While South Korea exports flat-panel TVs and advanced cellular phones, Northerners barely subsist in primitive, pre-industrial poverty.

North Koreans absorb a steady stream of propaganda from their single radio station that Kim and his radical policy of self-reliance, or "juche," are the only way to secure the nation's survival in a world that seeks North Korea's destruction. Food donations from abroad, hungry North Koreans are told, are tributes from other nations that fear North Korea's possible fury. The cruel reality is that since the Cold War ended, North Korea has stopped receiving aid from its last remaining friends, China and Russia, and its economic engine has come to a virtual halt. Without sufficient electric power, thousands of its people burn sticks and grass to survive the frigid winter. An estimated 6.4 million North Koreans, primarily children, face starvation, according to the World Food Program.Analysts believe Kim has sold ballistic-missile technology to Iran, Pakistan and Yemen for hard currency. Threatening to restart production of nuclear materials is another way, they say, to win attention from the Bush administration, which is focused on preparing for war with Iraq, and to gain some of the money and fuel oil North Korea needs to keep from collapsing.

Developing a few dozen nuclear weapons also may prove a cheaper deterrent than housing and feeding a million-man Army.