Few Clues Emerge to N. Korean Leader's Motivations

Analysts in Seoul, South Korea, are trying to interpret the meaning of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's latest actions. North Korea's recent violation of its own moratorium on missile tests has revived a longstanding debate about what motivates the leader of that isolated country.

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The Bush administration's senior diplomat on the North Korean nuclear issue, is in Beijing today. The trip, by American envoy, Christopher Hill, follows a decision by the UN Security Council to delay voting on a resolution calling for sanctions against Pyongyang. That resolution was sponsored by Japan.

As the world struggles to form a response to North Korea's behavior, the man at the center of the crisis has remained silent. The country's leader, Kim Jong-il, is characterized by some, as a paranoid madman who thrives on provoking global crises. So just how irrational is his behavior? Or is there some method behind the madness? On a recent trip to Seoul, NPR's Louisa Lim answers, asks the experts.

LOUISA LIM, reporting:

This is the sound of an enigma.

(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)

LIM: He's the leader the rest of the world loves to mock, but who inspires absolute fear at home. Kim Jong-il has become famous for his bouffant hairstyle, his built-up shoes, and his love of Daffy Duck cartoons. The North Korean leader is sometimes caricatured as a cognac-swilling gourmet, the one fat man in a country where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have died from famine. His paranoia is legendary. But George Bush has said he loathes Kim Jong-il, on a visceral level. So, those fears that someone is out to get him, could be well-founded.

Mr. JOUN-YUNG SUN (Former Ambassador to the United Nations, South Korea): I'm not so sure whether Kim Jong-il is mad and extremely irrational, but he is absolute dictator.

LIM: Joun-yung Sun is a former South Korean ambassador to the United Nations. He says Kim's unpredictable brinksmanship isn't so much a reflection of his personality, it's a characteristic inherited from his father, the country's former leader, Kim Il-sung.

Mr. SUN: I think this type of diplomacy is not confined to Kim Jung-il himself, because in the history of 60 years of North Korea's regime, they have been using same tactic.

LIM: And some argue that these latest missile launches are a carefully calculated salvo, to gain attention and bring Washington to the negotiating table.

Mr. MICHAEL BREEN (Author, Kim Jong-Il: North Korea's Dear Leader): From the outside, it looks like the actions of a mad person. But, it's not a paranoid action. If anything, it is the action of a leader who - of a country, that wants to get taken seriously.

LIM: Michael Breen is the author of a book about Kim Jong-il. He sees the leader as a shrewd political operator, who has managed to stay in power, despite North Korea's massive problems.

Mr. BREEN: It is using its one strong point. The one point where it's internationally competitive, is in its ability to militarily cause trouble. That's what he's doing. He's playing his only strong card, which is the ability to scare us.

LIM: Probably the biggest unknown, is the domestic political calculation involved in launching these missiles. It could be an attempt to play to the country's powerful military, to win its support. And to the people who live in the hermit kingdom, Kim Jong-il's defiance of world opinion might look like courage. But it could also be driven by desperation, as the U.S. clampdown cuts off the regime's finances.

Peter Beck, from the International Crisis Group, says Kim may need to strengthen his support base at home.

Mr. PETER BECK (Director, North East Asia Project, International Crisis Group): I think there are growing signs, in recent months, of regime strain; whether it's getting tougher with the few hands that have been still trying to feed them - with the World Food Program and NGO's - and kicking some of them out, and making life more difficult for them. And so, that leaves me to speculate, that maybe things are difficult for the regime right now, and, uh, they need more enemies than friends, right now to, uh, rally people around them.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: North Korea's long been famed for its mass rallies, astonishing displays of synchronized movement by up to 100,000 people at a time. And this love of spectacle and political theater, might offer a window into the North Korean leader's personality.

(Soundbite of clip from movie "Gone With the Wind")

Mr. CLARK GABLE: (as Rhett Butler) Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

LIM: Gone With the Wind is reportedly the favorite movie of this film buff. He's such a film buff, that in 1978, Kim Jong-il even ordered the kidnap of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, and his girlfriend, actress Choi Eun-hee. They were kept in the North for eight years. Author Michael Breen, says this episode shows just how distorted Kim's values had become.

Mr. BREEN: When the actress was kidnapped, and when the boat came in, he was there, saying welcome to North Korea. This guy is not really aware of how he's violated somebody's rights. To me that's not madness. That's because his ethical system is subordinate to a loyalty to their regime.

LIM: Ultimately, Kim Jong-il's actions have one aim: to ensure the survival of his regime and his country. It's a gamble of the highest stakes, maybe weakened by the failure of the long-range missile this past week. And with threats to launch yet more missiles, and perhaps now something more to prove, this dangerous game may not yet be over.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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