The last time North Korea faced off in a nuclear confrontation with the United States, in 1994, Kim Jong Il was largely running the country from the shadows, but had not assumed total control. As tensions reached the brink of armed conflict, his father, the self-styled "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, stepped in and struck a key compromise, according to diplomats and others.

But the father died shortly after the 1994 deal to abandon a nuclear program. This time, his son is solely in charge.

"If Kim Jong Il had been in complete control then, he might have been a little more daring," said Han Sung Joo, who was South Korea's foreign minister at the time. "Now, we don't have a Kim Il Sung to moderate."

As the world focuses anew on North Korea, seeking to calculate how far Kim Jong Il will go, this is the portrait that emerges: Like his father, he is inclined toward confrontation. He prefers to press for a deal through escalation of threats. But Kim Jong Il may be willing to go even further than his father in challenging the United States and threatening to build more nuclear weapons.

"He looks very irrational, very dangerous and very unpredictable," said Choi Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Reunification, a research body affiliated with the South Korean government in Seoul. "This is Kim Jong Il's style."

While the elder Kim never publicly admitted pursuing nuclear weapons, cloaking his efforts as energy projects, Kim Jong Il has acknowledged his ambitions to build a bomb. Diplomats take that as a sign that he is more desperate than during the last crisis, at once coping with a dreadful economy, strained relations with his most critical ally -- China -- and a sense of insecurity deepened by President Bush's decision to label his country part of an "axis of evil."

He may also be unable to back down, lest he appear weak in the eyes of North Korean generals. He lacks the military credentials of Kim Il Sung, according to Han. "He has a greater need than his father to show his macho," he said.

Still, diplomats and North Korea experts see potentially crucial differences between the last crisis and the forces at work around Kim Jong Il today. He has invested time and effort to engage the outside world and improve relations with his former adversaries. Despite the evident paranoia and bluster in recent months, they say, Kim Jong Il may eventually be ready to compromise.

A Western diplomat noted that in recent days North Korea has softened its conditions for talks with the United States. Where once it called for a resumption of canceled fuel oil shipments from the United States along with a nonaggression pact, its most recent formulations have demanded only a security guarantee.

But other analysts caution that Kim's sense of desperation and eagerness for a deal could work in the opposite direction, inspiring him to escalate further, employing the only means he and his father have ever known to conduct business with the outside world -- brinkmanship.

"This is consistent with their pattern," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an interview shortly after his inspectors were expelled from North Korea last month. "By escalating a situation into a crisis situation, they believe they will get a more advantageous negotiating position and get their security and economic needs catered to."

Kim Jong Il, now 60, was mostly an enigma when he assumed power following his father's death in 1994. The elder Kim had been an imposing figure who appeared to enjoy the pomp and regalia of Stalinist ritual. The younger Kim seemed nervous and uncomfortable in public. South Koreans were struck by this "short, dumpy-looking character with a strange hairdo," as one diplomat put it.

Kim also had a reputation for cruelty. He had enemies burned alive, according to a U.S. intelligence report. He loved film and actresses, and once ordered a show business pair kidnapped from South Korea to entertain him, the couple disclosed after escaping. And he had a penchant for cognac and fast cars. But beyond that, little was known.

Many expected Kim's ascent would bring change, particularly to the economy. He courted investment from South Korea and launched tourism and free trade zones inside North Korea. He sought to transcend North Korea's isolation, hosting former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. His summit with South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, in 2000 did much to change the world's image of North Korea's leader.

The South Korean president concluded that his counterpart in the North enjoyed "an ability to be receptive to new ideas and a willingness to change his views," according to Korea expert Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post staff writer and foreign correspondent, who quoted him in his book, "The Two Koreas." The North Korean leader "didn't appear to be a cold-minded theoretician, but a very sharp personality," Kim Dae Jung was quoted as saying.

Though still reclusive, Kim Jong Il seems far more interested in the outside world than was his father. According to diplomats, he spends two hours a day surfing the Internet and watching television -- from CNN to South Korean programming and Hollywood movies. When a group of officials from Seoul visited him in Pyongyang in April, Kim amazed them with his encyclopedic knowledge of South Korean soap operas, according to Choi, and quizzed them on whether they had watched a recent episode to its end.

Unlike his father, he has many channels of communication with other countries. Groups from North and South Korea meet to discuss issues from coordinating visits of separated family members to new economic projects. Britain now has an embassy in Pyongyang.

Yet the glimpses of Kim that seep out through his encounters with outsiders suggest a disjointed and incomplete view of the world. In a recently published book, a Russian general, Konstantin Pulikovsky, recounts a series of lengthy conversations with Kim in 2001 as he accompanied the North Korean leader in his private armored rail car during a journey to Moscow for a visit with President Vladimir Putin. They discussed topics from the beauty of dancers in Paris to the price of Italian shoes and Kim's view of his public image.

"Throughout the whole world I'm the object of criticism," Kim said, according to Pulikovsky. "But I think about it this way: If I'm talked about, I'm going about things the right way."

In another conversation, Kim brought up AIDS, saying he could not believe reports about the extent of the pandemic. "This is just impossible!" he exclaimed, according to the book. "Many countries are exaggerating the extent of their troubles to get more international aid."

Even if Kim does have a better grasp of how the world operates, it does not necessarily translate to a greater inclination to avoid confrontation. His knowledge may simply make him a more sophisticated practitioner of the family's traditional craft of brinkmanship.

"He may have much more access and understanding, but he's using it to take advantage of the conditions," said Han, the former South Korean foreign minister. "He's testing the limits of what he can do."

Many observers have been struck by what appears to be Kim's impeccable timing. He brought the current crisis to a head as the Bush administration sought to focus on a looming war in Iraq. He is exploiting favorable conditions in South Korea, where a wave of anti-Americanism has given him an opportunity to drive a wedge between the South and the United States. He appears to understand that the United States is deeply reluctant to wage war here and cannot deliver on past threats to pursue sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, because Russia and China would oppose them. This has allowed Kim to escalate again and again with little risk of military confrontation.

Kim is now being advised by the same inner circle that managed the last conflict -- First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, who negotiated the 1994 deal, and Kim Yong San, the railways minister and member of the powerful Administrative Council, who has handled North Korea's dealings with the South.

"They are very savvy," said Lee Jung Hoon, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "They know what they are doing and they're very tough to handle."

Kim may face a more difficult arrangement of foreign interests than did his father. Russia is a less dependable ally than was the Soviet Union and relations with China are strained.

According to Choi, much of the tension with China goes back to North Korea's talks with Russia in recent years about linking the two countries' rail networks. Links now being forged between North and South Korea would eventually allow cargo to be shipped across Asia to Europe. Russia and China are jockeying to capture the bulk of the traffic. In discussing a link with Russia, North Korea seemed to be signaling that it would bypass China, Choi said.

The relationship with Beijing worsened last fall when Kim announced the creation of a free trade zone on China's border, selecting a Chinese-born Dutch entrepreneur, Yang Bin, to head it. Chinese police promptly arrested Yang and charged him with tax evasion, leaving the free trade zone up in the air.

"China had notified North Korea many times that they couldn't employ that sort of person," said Li Chunhu, a North Korea expert at Shanghai International Studies University, who studied in North Korea in the 1980s. "But North Korea ignored it, as they regarded it was their internal business and China had no right to interfere. . . . There are clear cracks in the two countries' mutual understanding and trust," Li said.

Meanwhile, the North Korean economy is in ever-deeper distress. In recent months, Kim has implemented some market-oriented changes in wages and prices to an otherwise statist, centrally planned economy. According to a report released recently by a human rights group in Tokyo, Rescue the North Korean People, the government is strapped for cash and has stopped paying for such things as food for its people and raw material for state-run factories. At the same time, it is sharply increasing taxes to pay higher salaries to soldiers and policemen.

Kim has weathered economic disaster before. Famine in the mid-1990s killed an estimated 2 million people, according to U.S. congressional estimates. A showdown with the United States could help Kim deflect attention from the economic troubles.

"North Korea is very well-accustomed to what they call the March of Hardship," a concept that dates to the painful days of Japanese colonialism in the 1920s, said Moon Jung In, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University. "Hardship could consolidate Kim's power all the more."

Where Kim goes from here depends on what he really wants. Some argue that he was taking dramatic steps toward improving North Korea's relationship with its neighbors and the United States in the final days of the Clinton administration. The United States and North Korea were close to completing a deal that would have traded new limits on North Korea's missiles for a visit by President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang. That trip was never made. Others point out that even as Kim was courting the United States, he was apparently engaged in a secret project to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, which was later discovered by U.S. intelligence, and which North Korea acknowledged when confronted last year by a Bush administration official.

North Korea has also continued to sell its missiles around the world. Critics say this illustrates how North Korea adeptly offers concessions to gain things it needs, while secretly developing future threats that can serve as bargaining chips later on.

"North Korea will never really dismantle its nuclear programs," said Lee. "Because what is North Korea without those weapons? It's nothing. It has no leverage. Every time, they make it sound like a new issue and get a fresh deal."

Special correspondents Wang Ting in Shanghai and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Kim Jong Il "has a greater need than his father to show his macho," a South Korean ex-official said.North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, in sunglasses, is said to spend hours each day surfing the Internet and watching U.S. and South Korean television. While more familiar with the outside world than his reclusive father, whom he succeeded in 1994, Kim appears more willing to provoke confrontations in the pursuit of policy objectives.