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North Korea: Playboy In A Mao Suit -- 'Dear Leader' Enjoys The High Life

When he was born, rainbows are said to have appeared in the sky. When he was elected head of the ruling party, fruit trees reportedly burst into bloom and fishermen landed a rare white sea cucumber -- a marine animal -- an auspicious sign, apparently, that he is "the greatest of great men produced by heaven." Who is this mysterious, godlike figure? RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the summer of 2000, shortly after a historic summit in Pyongyang with his South Korean counterpart, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il invited southern media executives up north for what turned into a long and liquid lunch.

Korea watcher Aidan Foster-Carter of Leeds University in Britain noted that Kim's conversation during that lunch, according to transcripts, was quite revealing. "There's a lot of quite surprising things like, 'Oh, we'd like to have another party congress, but the old generation [would] say I was purging them.' And there's nervous laughter from officials around the table. And then he says some quite strange things [such as:] 'English horses are no good. Their ankles break when I ride them,'" Foster-Carter said.

This is the enduring double image of Kim Jong Il: the capricious dictator striking fear into underlings, the playboy rich beyond his starving countrymen's dreams.

To many, the man who has led the "hermit kingdom" since the death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994 fascinates and appalls in equal measure.

With his portly build, bouffant hair, and high heels, Kim cuts a slightly ridiculous figure. He's known for his fondness for the finer things in life. He is said to be one of the world's biggest customers for top-of-the-line Hennessy cognac. He reportedly has a "joy" or "pleasure" brigade, a group of specially recruited young women who entertain him. He's also reputed to be an avid movie fan, particularly of action films.

In one of his more bizarre episodes, he kidnapped a top South Korean film director and his wife, a leading actress, in 1978 and had them make films for him.

More recently, he recruited an Italian chef, who later wrote about his exploits in a series of newspaper articles memorably titled "I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il."

Not that North Korea's official media say anything about the good life enjoyed by their "Dear Leader." They portray Kim as a man of modest needs, and stories about him are stuffed with endless anecdotes about his Spartan lifestyle.

Here's a typical one from KCNA, the official North Korean news agency: "An official was surprised to see an unusual scene," the agency writes. "Kim Jong Il was seated on an office chair at the entrance of his lodging to have his hair cut. The official asked him why he was having a haircut on an inconvenient seat late at night. He told the official that he could not spare time for the haircut as he was expected to go to meet workers early the next morning."

It's hard not to sneer. But Paik Haksoon, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said that South Koreans have toned down their tendency to lampoon Kim since the summit in 2000. "There were a lot of people who have met with him since then, and his image broadcast through South Korean society after the summit talks has changed the impression of the people about the North Korean leader. I think he's more viewed as a strategically minded politician. Of course, he's a socialist leader. We don't like him. We don't like his system where they don't have any democracy, but basically he's the kind of person we have to deal with in order to have a peaceful resolution of the pending problems between both Koreas and between the U.S. and North Korea," Paik said.

Other contacts with foreigners in the last few years have helped strip away some of the mystery surrounding Kim. He has hosted foreign politicians at home and visited China and Russia, the latter in a marathon train journey lasting three weeks. Further glimpses came from a book by his traveling companion on the Russia trip, Konstantin Pulikovskii, the Russian president's special representative in the Far East, who described Kim's lavish dinners and obsequious retinue.

There are indications Kim is under no illusions about the regular displays of adulation from his people.

Shin Sang Ok, the South Korean film director who was kidnapped but later escaped, recalled attending one such performance with Kim where the North Korean leader turned to him and said: "I'm not fooled. This is a lie."

Two years ago, after a visit to Pyongyang, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that Kim was "on top of his brief."

Since North Korea has been relying on foreign food aid for several years, Kim is also presumably aware that many of his citizens are starving and that untold numbers have already died from hunger.

Then there's the nuclear brinkmanship. Earlier this month, North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after reactivating a plant capable of producing material for nuclear weapons. Regional neighbors, the United States, and the United Nations are now scrambling to find a way to defuse the crisis.

Though Kim is often portrayed in the West as unpredictable, Foster-Carter said we may be seeing more of what he calls Kim's "militant mendicancy." This is where Kim behaves badly, then extracts more aid from an alarmed world in return for promises that he'll behave himself again.

Paik said Kim's withdrawal from the treaty shows that he is a shrewd character. "What he's doing, for instance, in this nuclear crisis is viewed as very carefully calculated behavior on his part. He's using his nuclear clout in order to prevent a situation where the U.S. will have a very heavy-handed policy towards North Korea after a decisive victory in [a possible war on] Iraq," Paik said.

So what of the future?

There are signs that Kim realizes the regime needs to change in order for it, and him, to survive. For example, he introduced some limited market reforms last year.

Still, anyone predicting his regime's imminent demise may want to exercise some caution. Many expected it to fall after the Soviet Union collapsed, an event that pulled the plug on large amounts of aid to North Korea and sent its economy into free fall. But as Foster-Carter noted, "Ten years pass and, my goodness, it's still there."