SEOUL -- One of Joseph Stalin's more dubious tactics was a concept used by many despots called The Big Lie: the idea that you can get people to believe anything if you say it long enough and loud enough. Stalin's own "Big Lie" has largely been buried in the rubble of the former Soviet empire, but the principle remains alive and well today in North Korea, in the person of Kim Il Sung.

The 82-year-old dictator who is consuming so much of President Clinton's time these days was handpicked by Stalin to run North Korea in February 1946 -- which means that Kim has been chief of state longer than Clinton has been alive.

To give his chosen puppet a patina of legitimacy, Stalin and his propaganda chief invented a falsehood of preposterous scope. They created the myth -- taught as historical truth in all North Korean schools ever since -- that Kim was the man who defeated Japan in World War II, thus liberating Korea from colonial rule.

The image of Kim as Korea's George Washington is set forth relentlessly in textbooks, comics, plays, operas, movies, paintings, plaques and, according to the official guidebooks, 35,000 gilded statues all over North Korea -- with no mention anywhere of the United States and other nations that fought Japan.

Within the "hermit kingdom," almost completely sealed off from outside information, this brazen Big Lie seems to have worked.

The man known as "The Great Leader Comrade President Kim Il Sung" appears to be an object of genuine reverence among his 21 million subjects, a living cult figure whose every wish must be granted. Not long ago, when Kim decided an extract of frog liver might increase his energy level, volunteers from the million-member People's Army went scurrying through swamps and captured 5,000 live frogs for shipment to the presidential palace in Pyongyang.

But this venerated leader gets almost no respect in the outside world -- not even, these days, from former allies in Moscow and Beijing. That may partly answer a key question confronting the West as it tries to deal with the current nuclear crisis: What is Kim trying to achieve?

Some analysts suggest that Kim wants to build nuclear weapons so he can sell them, thus earning hard currency and gaining influence. Others suggest that one of the chief goals of Kim's mysterious nuclear program is to earn North Korea attention and respect around the world.

"Did the president of the U.S. or the U.N. Security Council even think about North Korea before he built his nuclear reactors?" asked Peter Hayes, an Australian scholar who visits North Korea regularly. Kim "wants people to listen to him, to negotiate with him like a serious world leader -- and now that he has plutonium, by golly, they're doing it."

Selig Harrison of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, who talked to Kim earlier this month, notes that whenever the man who is treated as a living god in his own country meets with Americans these days, he asks the same plaintive question: "If Bill Clinton can meet with the president of South Korea, why couldn't he meet with me?"

Kim is so desperate for international respect that he has gone to almost absurd lengths to forge it. There is a large plaque in Pyongyang that purports to be a tribute from an organization called "the New York Society to Study Kim Il Sungism." Another poster declares that Kim's books sell a million copies each year in Mexico.

Of course, if getting attention is Kim's goal, he has already scored strongly. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll last week indicated that Americans consider North Korea -- a primitive, broken-down country where the electricity and running water frequently fail -- to be America's most serious foreign policy problem.

While no U.S. president has yet made the trek to Pyongyang -- where Kim has erected replicas of the Washington Monument, the Arc de Triomphe and the Colossus of Rhodes in his own honor -- the North Korean leader was visited last weekend by a former president, Jimmy Carter.

Carter too noted North Korea's deep thirst for respect. He pointed out that one of the major items on Kim's wish list was diplomatic recognition from the United States. Carter also said North Korea is worried about international sanctions, not because of their economic impact -- there would be almost none, he said -- but because such action would be viewed as "an insult to their so-called 'Great Leader.' "

Despite Carter's assertion that sanctions would have little economic impact, other analysts note that the country is chronically short of hard currency. Remittances by North Koreans living in Japan -- which could eventually be cut off if sanctions are imposed -- are said to be the country's biggest currency earner.

Respect is one thing, power another. And the urge for continued power underlies another key goal for Kim, most analysts agree. He wants to arrange what no other Communist ruler was able to: a monarchal succession, with his son Kim Jong Il ("The Dear Leader") inheriting his power.

"The Kims are the Asian mind writ large," said a U.S. official with long Korean experience. "They value respect, and they value family traditions. Kim Il Sung wants to perpetuate the regime within his family."

The problem facing the aging ruler is that his personal aura will not necessarily pass down to his son. Although Pyongyang's propaganda experts have been grinding out heroic legends about Kim Jong Il for years, the son lacks his father's stature, and he has no story to match the "Father of the Country" legend that Stalin devised for Kim Il Sung.

Russian and Western historians say Kim Il Sung, then known as Kim Sung Jo, served as a junior officer in a small resistance unit in Manchuria before going to Moscow for political training. Japanese army records list him as a minor functionary whose capture was considered a low priority. But when Japan surrendered, Stalin dressed the 33-year-old in a general's uniform and sent him to Pyongyang with the name Kim Il Sung, which is written with three Chinese characters that mean "a golden sun emerges."

"What Kim hopes," the American expert said, "is that he can give his son control of a potential nuclear arsenal and that {this} will be enough to keep the 'Dear Leader' on top."

There is also a considerably darker view of what Kim has in mind.

Chun Chung Whan, a professor at the National Defense University in Seoul -- South Korea's West Point -- argued that Kim wants nuclear weapons so he can conquer South Korea and "unify the Korean peninsula under communism."

Other analysts said that Kim -- who in the past has used terrorism, kidnapping, guerrilla war and full-scale invasion to advance his purposes -- may be seeking a nuclear bomb for a last-gasp suicidal attack on his longtime adversaries in South Korea or Japan.

The two most destructive North Korean terrorist attacks in recent years were the 1983 bombing by North Korean commandos in Rangoon, Burma, that killed 17 South Korean officials, including four cabinet ministers, and the 1987 midair bombing of a South Korean airliner by two North Korean terrorists that killed all 115 people aboard.

One reason there are so many theories about North Korea's intentions is that the country's's relatively small governing clique often seems to be at war within itself.

Everybody claims to be acting for Kim and at his direction, but there clearly are many different ideas in Pyongyang as to what the leader wants to do. "The hard-liners go one way, and the pragmatists go the other," said a Tokyo-based Pyongyang-watcher. "This makes the country a very difficult negotiating partner."

The differences may explain the constant back-and-forth over North Korea's nuclear development program. For months, North Korea has been alternating between mild cooperation and a complete stonewall in its dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There was another zigzag last week, when Pyongyang ordered international inspectors out of the country -- and then Kim told Carter two days later that the inspectors were under no command to depart. Some analysts say this approach is a tactic to keep the rest of the world off-balance, a maneuver Kim has used successfully in the past.

Although he was anointed leader by Stalin, Kim quickly began to confound his mentor. He frequently told Stalin one thing and Mao Zedong, who was then China's ruler, something completely different.

And throughout his long hold on power, Kim has been raising hopes among outsiders that he really is a reasonable man who wants nothing more than respect.

In early June 1950, for example, Kim cooled off a tense situation on the Korean peninsula by calling for a general election in which all Koreans, North and South, could peacefully choose a unified government.

The experts in Seoul were still analyzing the import of his conciliatory pronouncement on the afternoon of June 25, 1950, when the same Kim sent North Korean troops and tanks pouring across the North-South border in a massive invasion that started the Korean War.