Mon, Jul 17, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Kim Jong-il's wine, women and bombs

He has an expensive taste in cognac, and seeks comfort in the company of his Pleasure Brigade, but North Korea's dictator still lives for the politics of brinkmanship

By Justin McCurry  /  THE OBSERVER , TOKYO

It is a measure of North Korea's place in the world that a tiny, desperately poor state, governed in near paranoid secrecy, is led by one of the globe's most recognizable leaders.

Long before Team America: World Police, the 2004 film from the creators of South Park, which pilloried Kim Jong-il as a recluse plotting to destroy the world, we were familiar with images of the chubby dictator. There he was in his trademark Mao suit and oversized Elvis sunglasses, applauding his million-man army, the fourth biggest in the world. But we have also come to know another Kim, the dictator who rules the northern half of the Korean Peninsula with an iron first and who has a habit of shocking the world into taking him seriously.

Two weeks ago, he was up to his old tricks, throwing his toys out of the baby carriage with such disregard for international opinion that even allies in Moscow and Beijing appear to be losing patience with him.

With impeccable timing, North Korea chose to mark the US' Independence Day with a fireworks display of its own, launching seven missiles into the Sea of Japan. In response, the USS Mustin, a guided-missile destroyer, was deployed to Japan.

Why Kim chose to ignore weeks of warnings from Washington and Tokyo is still a matter for debate.

Second-guessing Kim's diplomatic maneuvers is a growth industry. His critics condemn the missile tests as the acts of a belligerent madman, but more measured observers say they are another example of impulsive behavior that, in the long run, brings results. After all, no sooner had the North Koreans said they were withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 than China, Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan were inviting them to sit down and talk.

This time, his motive is, apparently, to draw the US away from its efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and concentrate their minds on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, its desire for security assurances from Washington and its insistence that it will not return to talks until the US ends its -- so far effective -- crackdown on suspected North Korean counterfeiting and money-laundering operations.

Only the coming weeks and months will tell us whether the Dear Leader's diplomatic skills win him the concessions he craves. If Kim the statesman is tricky to interpret, Kim the man provides enough material to exercise the minds of a busload of psychotherapists.

As hermit-in-chief of the Hermit Kingdom, what little is known about Kim's personality has been pieced together from a combination of official propaganda and testimony from defectors and the exclusive group of outsiders who have spent time in his company.

Kim Jong-il was born on Feb. 16, 1942, the son and heir of a man North Koreans would come to revere as a living god -- the country's revolutionary founder Kim Il-sung.

Had Kim the younger not been groomed to succeed his father as ruler of North Korea, he might well have ended up making movies.

Indeed, it is his obsession with films and his love of good food that have given us the most satisfying snippets of life at chez Kim.

Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef employed by Kim in 1982, wrote of the leader's violent temper and of banquets lasting four days, at which he would order women belonging to his private entertainment detail -- the Pleasure Brigade -- to dance naked. Fujimoto managed to escape by claiming he needed to return to Japan to buy prized sea urchins. He now wears a disguise because he is convinced Kim's agents are out to kill him.

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