BEIJING – There are stories of Kim Jong Il the goofball, who has a library of 20,000 films and loves James Bond. And there are stories of Kim Jong Il the madman, who is such a big fan of South Korean movies that he had a director and actress kidnapped. Both are true.

Then there is the story that North Korea’s reclusive, eccentric leader – responsible for the deaths of as many as 2 million people by famine – is such a sensitive person that when he accidentally shot a pregnant deer while hunting he had it raced to a hospital to be saved.

The newest Kim story is potentially terrifying: That North Korea is about to conduct a nuclear weapons test, making Kim Jong Il one of the most feared men on Earth, capable of either threatening the world with a working bomb or selling one to terrorists.

What links these stories is how they come cloaked in mystery, a void of information in which the easiest reality to grasp is the caricature of Kim as a buffoonish Dr. Evil.

People who study North Korea say this is a false impression based on errant guesswork about a country few outsiders have been allowed to visit. Kim is not deranged, the experts say. He is wily. He has taken a tiny, has-been communist country ruled as a private fiefdom and made it the focus of the world’s attention through menace, obfuscation and brinkmanship.

Even now, with North Korea in the headlines, it remains such a closed country that there is absolutely no consensus whether Kim is in the final stages of preparation to test the bomb and become a nuclear state. It is possible he is simply trying to heighten the pressure on the Bush administration to negotiate a more favorable deal.

But what is fading from view is the idea of expecting steady progress toward an international agreement that ends North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and relieves the world’s concern.

“I am much more concerned today than a year ago,” said Stephen Noerper, a longtime North Korea watcher affiliated with the Nautilus Institute. “It appears things are beginning to go badly wrong.”

It has been nearly a year, Noerper pointed out, since the last negotiating session in Beijing involving North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States. Instead of progress, the tone has turned icy, with President Bush at a recent news conference calling Kim a “tyrant” who “starves his people” and runs “huge concentration camps.”

This came after South Korean officials and the State Department asked the president to avoid name-calling, according to analysts.

North Korea, which in February announced for the first time that it possesses nuclear weapons, responded by calling Bush “the world’s dictator” and a “half-baked man in terms of morality.” At about the same time, word leaked from Washington that satellite images of the North indicated a tunnel and grandstand under construction, two signs consistent with – but not confirmation of – preparation for a nuclear test. Pyongyang sidestepped the issue, then upped the ante by claiming it was making progress in producing more nuclear weapons to add to what is believed to be its small stockpile.

None of this sits well with people like Noerper or Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea scholar at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“I’ve become more pessimistic in terms of the possibility of reaching a negotiated settlement, but I still think the possibility of armed conflict over this is low,” Pinkston said. “There is just no settlement of this issue. We are moving into new territory.”

This new territory could be North Korea as a nuclear state.

Dong Yong Seung, head of the North Korea team at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, says the possibility exists that if a test would take place, Bush would order an attack in hope of knocking out the North’s main nuclear sites and perhaps get Kim too.

Besides the chance that a test could provoke military action, a second issue is that it would act as a world advertisement for Kim’s dangerous product.

North Korea does a booming legal business in ballistic missile sales and is widely suspected of bankrolling itself through methamphetamine and heroin sales and counterfeiting, according to numerous reports.

It has also engaged in terrorism: On Kim’s orders, North Korean agents blew up a South Korean jet in 1987, killing 115 people, according to one of the accused plotters. There is no reason to discount the possibility of Kim’s selling the bomb to a third party.

Should a test happen, it could turn the geopolitics of Asia upside-down, with nervous countries looking for new ways to defend themselves while becoming disenchanted with the U.S. for failing in its role as protector. South Korea and Japan could be spurred to beef up their militaries, which would concern China.

The situation, Pinkston said, “could be really bad. It could really damage U.S. credibility.”

The most likely next step, analysts believe and the Bush administration and its allies have signaled, is to seek United Nations Security Council sanctions against the North. But Pyongyang says it would consider this an act of war.

There is also another geopolitical complication: China.

Beijing is North Korea’s only powerful friend and provider in the world. It has been unable to persuade Kim to take a deal and has balked at pressuring him.

Instead, China has insisted that the dispute be settled through negotiation, and it is likely to veto any U.N. proposal for economic or food sanctions. The reason is, China fears what Washington would like to see: a collapse of the North. Were North Korea to implode, there would likely be a flood of millions of refugees across the border into China, and in the end China would find itself next door to a reunified Korea closely allied to the United States.

At the heart of all this is Kim Jong Il, and how he sees the world.

When Kim took official leadership of North Korea in 1997, three years after the death of his father – the North’s founding dictator Kim Il Sung – the younger Kim was a cipher. He had spoken in public only once, shouting a revolutionary greeting at a military march, and he was known mainly for his bouffant hairdo, elevator shoes and reputation as a playboy.

A number of books by North Korea watchers have been published about Kim in the past year or so, relying mainly on the same sources: defectors, a few foreigners who worked in North Korea and leaders of other countries who have met him.

What they have seen is a smart, energetic leader but also an isolated, paranoid king, ruler of a hermetically sealed country that accepts him as a god. The “Dear Leader,” as he is known, answers to no one and is motivated by a single principle: regime survival. This, analysts say, is what makes him dangerous.

Kim, who might believe that he has little to lose, will escalate tension and do what he must “in the sure conviction that the other side will blink,” said Jasper Becker, author of “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea.”

Kim probably believes that a pre-emptive strike would fail because North Korea’s military-industrial complex, and the Dear Leader’s lairs, are hidden in mountains and below-ground, Becker said.

A nuclear test by Kim is therefore plausible.

“The point of exploding it would be to pile up the pressure on the U.S. to accede to their demands,” Becker said.

Further, Becker said, there were very few repercussions after India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in 1998. “So it doesn’t seem unreasonable.”

Another reason to test is, if Kim has decided negotiating with Bush is futile and going nuclear is the only way to guarantee his survival.

Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty,” says there are strong arguments against North Korea’s testing. It would make Kim a pariah with whom no one, even China, would negotiate.

“But if his theory is simply to forget about wringing any concessions out of the U.S. and simply to show the world that he is a nuclear power and there is nothing anybody can do about it, then he may want to go ahead anyway,” Martin said.

However Kim is thinking, Martin pointed out that his reputation for playing brilliant diplomatic poker might be overrated. He has overreached before.

Kim masterminded the blowing up of the South Korean airliner, and it achieved nothing. In 1998, Kim tested a missile that shot over Japan. Whether it was intended to intimidate Japan or stir national pride at home, it spurred Japan to beef up its military, tighten its alliance with the United States and aggressively chase North Korean spy vessels at sea.

“He’s not stupid,” Martin said. “But he’s not beyond making errors.”


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