Pyongyang spin-meisters credit Kim with an "insatiable" desire for learning, with consuming thousands of books during junior high school, writing six classic operas in just two years and other wondrous feats.
More objective analysts who monitor North Korea say Kim shows two faces: a ruthless terrorist and an economic reformist.
The trigger-happy image stems largely from suspicions that he masterminded the 1983 bombing in Burma, now Myanmar, that killed 17 South Korean officials and the 1987 midair bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed all 115 people aboard.
In addition, he initiated two of North Korea's most recent belligerent acts: the decision to put North Korea on a "semi-war" footing on March 8, 1993, and the stunning announcement four days later that it was pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Some analysts at the time, however, said Kim's move was mainly to show his "boldness" in an attempt to consolidate his rule.
At the same time, he is known to have promoted economic reform within the Stalinist state. He was behind the establishment of the North's rare free-trade zone in the Tumen River estuary on the Chinese border, as well as other moves beginning in the 1980s to woo more foreign investment and liberalize the economy.
A joint-venture law he supported in the early 1980s produced more than 100 enterprises--many of them financed by North Korean residents in Japan. But only 20 to 30 are still functioning, said one economics expert. Kim's "three main revolutionary squads" too often disrupted factory production with ideological meetings. Or the North Koreans kicked out their foreign partners to seize the profits but foundered when they left, the expert said.
"He doesn't have the ability or talent to think up these programs himself," the expert said. "He is surrounded by staff who do it for him."
In fact, Kim's main interests are said to be films, women and wine. He holds regular parties with strippers and orders high-ranking officers to play with them, according to two 1989 defectors, actress Choi Eun Hee and her director husband, Shin Sang Ok. The pair say they spent eight years in Pyongyang after Kim ordered them kidnaped from Hong Kong to teach him about movie-making.
According to defectors and diplomats, Kim is sensitive about his height (5 feet, 6 inches) and weight (189 pounds) and wears heels and a permed bouffant to elongate his profile. He orders his home disinfected every day.