Sunday, April 5, 2009

North Korea's Kim Jong-Il: a skilled and ruthless ruler

"...said to have been involved in planning a 1983 bomb attack in Myanmar..."

This undated picture, released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on April 5, 2009 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (centre) inspecting the renovated Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, whose regime fired a long-range rocket Sunday, is a skilled and ruthless ruler who has kept his regime in place despite years of famine and economic decline.

The communist North says it launched a communications satellite as part of a peaceful space programme. The United States and its regional allies see the exercise as a disguised long-range missile test in defiance of UN resolutions.

Analysts say a successful launch will give the regime a major propaganda boost amid lingering uncertainty following Kim's reported stroke last August.

"The launch could be a strategy to rally the elite and public around Kim as he tries to put a succession plan in place," said Peter Beck, a professor at the American University in Washington DC.

Kim, now 67, has provided no public clues as to who will succeed him.

He inherited power from his father Kim Il-Sung in the communist world's only dynastic succession. But it is unclear whether he wants one of his three sons to take his place -- and if so, which one.

Kim perpetuates his power using propaganda, prison camps, an all-pervading personality cult inherited from his father and a 1.2 million-strong army.

He presided over a famine in the 1990s which by some estimates killed one million people, but still found resources to continue missile development and a nuclear weapons programme which culminated in a test in October 2006.

Kim has used the nuclear programme to extract concessions and aid from the West, although an international nuclear disarmament deal is currently stalled by a dispute over verification.

He has defied widespread predictions that his regime would collapse as the command economy wilted under its own contradictions and Soviet aid dried up.

The regime's secret, according to expert Andrei Lankov, was "its remarkable indifference to the sufferings of the common people."

The famine, Lankov has written, resulted from a deliberate decision to retain state-run agricultural cooperatives rather than risk a loss of political control.

From the rainbows that appeared over the sacred mountain where he was said to have been born, to his 11 holes-in-one in a single round of golf, Kim's official life story is steeped in myths of wisdom and greatness.

Visitors or escapees paint a less flattering picture of a cognac-guzzling playboy, with an appetite for foreign films, fine dining and women.

Officially Kim was born on February 16, 1942 at sacred Mount Paekdu. But independent experts say the birth took place in a guerrilla camp in Russia where his father was fighting Japanese forces who had colonised the Korean peninsula.

After graduating in 1964 from university, Kim began his climb through the ranks of the ruling Workers' Party.

He was said to have been involved in planning a 1983 bomb attack in Myanmar that killed 17 South Koreans, as well as the 1987 bombing on a Korean Air jet that left dead all 115 people on board.

His grooming for the succession began in 1974 but Kim waited for three years after his father's death in 1994 before formally assuming power.

Initially he promoted gradual engagement with the world, culminating in a historic June 2000 summit in Pyongyang with South Korea's then President Kim Dae-Jung.

The then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang later that year. Both she and Kim Dae-Jung painted a portrait of a shrewd operator.

"He didn't appear to be a cold-minded theoretician but a very sensitive personality who had a sharp mind," Kim Dae-Jung was quoted as saying.

Albright described him as very well informed and "not delusional."

Kim could also display flashes of self-deprecating humour despite a streak of vanity which led him to wear stacked heels.

"Don't you think that I look like a midget's turd?" he reportedly asked a South Korean actress who had been kidnapped to the North and was later freed.

To his own people, such asides would be unthinkable.

Reportedly, he has never spoken live on television in his country. But he normally makes dozens of visits per year to schools, military bases and factories and above all cultivates ties to the military.

Some tentative economic reforms were introduced in 2002 but were partially rolled back in October 2005, apparently for fear they were weakening the regime's control.


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