N. Korean Strongman: 'Crazy' or Canny?

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 1993

North Korean strongman Kim Chong Il has sometimes used bizarre means to get what he wants. Even so, U.S. officials wonder whether his evident pursuit of a nuclear weapon in the face of intensifying U.S. and Asian opposition is fundamentally irrational or shrewd.

As the pampered, eccentric 51-year-old son of North Korea's longtime president, Kim Il Sung, and as the commander of the world's fourth largest army, Kim Chong Il is regarded by Washington as the key decision-maker on most of his government's policies, including its nuclear program.

U.S. officials said it is the younger Kim who has kept the Asian region on edge for the past seven months by first orchestrating and then suspending a North Korean promise to withdraw from an international treaty barring nuclear weapons-related work.

But as one of the world's most reclusive statesmen -- and the leader of a country that is isolated, authoritarian and extraordinarily xenophobic -- Kim also is largely an enigma to Washington. U.S. intelligence analysts had difficulty reaching a consensus about Kim while preparing a recent, classified psychological profile of him for policymakers, officials said.

Is he, as some government experts claim, a dangerous eccentric -- a spoiled, shy, immature leader with a reported penchant for wild parties, fast cars, violence and sexual liaisons -- who might eventually provoke a war to stay in power?

Or is he, in the words of one senior U.S. official, "crazy but like a fox" -- a wily statesman whose isolation masks a canny understanding of how to tweak the world into giving his nation the political independence and economic assistance it needs?

The evidence so far is mixed, officials said. By threatening to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and go forward with nuclear arms, Kim drew the Clinton administration this year into the first direct, high-level U.S. talks with his regime -- a development that prompted North Korean officials to hail the potential end of 40 years of hostile relations with Washington.

But the talks have made no progress because Kim has refused to allow international inspection of his country's key nuclear research facilities. Analysts in Washington and Seoul are divided on whether Kim really wants closer ties with the developed world or is merely stalling for time to finish building a nuclear arsenal.

"What little we know suggests he makes his father look like a moderate by comparison, and his father is the one that started the Korean War," said former undersecretary of defense Paul D. Wolfowitz. "We are dealing with extremely tough characters."

Recent visitors have reported seeing evidence of food shortages and hearing rumors of scattered local disturbances. But U.S. analysts say the regime's grip on power remains firm, with little prospect of large-scale unrest while Kim Il Sung remains its titular head. The government freely uses brutal methods of repression, and defectors claim it already has up to 150,000 political prisoners.

A U.S. defense official who has long studied North Korea sums up the uncertainty about the younger Kim's leadership and his handling of the nuclear issue in this way: "There could be a unification [of North and South Korea] within the next three years. Or there could be war."

The stakes in the talks with Kim Chong Il's representatives are among the highest faced by the Clinton administration in any foreign policy arena. The threat of an unprovoked attack against South Korea has kept more than 73,000 U.S. personnel deployed in that country at an annual cost of more than $ 2 billion, and American defense planning is still premised on the possibility that the United States might have to fight a major conflict in Korea.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 1993 The Washington Post Company