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A Quirky Person Lurks Behind North Korea's Cult of Personality

October 27, 2000|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PYONGYANG, North Korea — He loves American movies, has collected thousands of videos and faithfully follows the Oscar buzz each year. He especially likes musicals and epics, although he says he's not sure he could bear to watch "Titanic" again. And he's crazy about basketball, knows U.S. teams and understands the difference between a zone and man-to-man defense.

Kim Jong Il, an authoritarian leader in an isolated land, turns out not to be so cut off after all, U.S. officials discovered this week. And he opened up in surprising ways during two days of talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, offering in-depth insight into his quirky personality.

In one exchange, according to participants, Kim turned to a couple of U.S. envoys and, with a wry smile, said, "Do you think I can't change? Do you think I'm not modern?"

In a lighthearted moment, when Albright presented him with a basketball autographed by former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, his basketball hero, Kim immediately tried to take it out of the container to dribble--only to find, with a bit of obvious disappointment, that it was attached to the box.

And in a conversation with Albright at dinner, he inquired about the quality of one of his interpreters and said he hoped she could figure out a way to send teachers of English to North Korea so that its use would become more prevalent.

Yet in a telling reflection of his self-indulgence and singular control, the North Korean leader also revealed to the Americans that he maintains a team of translators to interpret any foreign-language book he wants to read.

U.S. officials, who are seeking improved relations with Kim and his nation, caution that he still rules like a "demigod." Commented one senior U.S. official, "He's a dictator in a system of government based totally on a cult of personality who has totally abused power."

The officials concede, however, that much of what they thought they knew about the personal life and style of the reclusive Kim has been either fiction or simply wrong. Before the North Korean leader began opening his nation to the outside world this year, many of the tales about his lifestyle--including one report that he had blood transfusions from young virgins to slow the aging process--were misinformation, they say.

Based heavily on intelligence from South Korea before that nation's transition to democracy, a psychological profile by the CIA once portrayed Kim, who took power in 1994 with the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, as a playboy lush who fancied Swedish blondes. It also painted him as a political lightweight who would never dare to deviate from his father's philosophy of juche, meaning self-reliance or defiance of the outside world.

In stark contrast, the man called "Dear Leader" by his people is now touted by U.S. officials as engaging, shrewd and farsighted, with a sense of humor.

"He's a very good listener, a good interlocutor. He strikes me as decisive and practical," Albright said after intensive U.S.-North Korean talks concluded Tuesday.

Other information is now emerging about Kim, including the fact that his mother was a Christian, according to U.S. officials. In pre-Communist days, this North Korean capital was the Christian missionary center for Northeast Asia--one of the reasons that the Rev. Billy Graham visited the country in 1992. Kim also is fascinated by information technology and computers, reflected in his offer to exchange e-mail addresses with Albright.

As a result of their exposure to the mercurial leader, U.S. officials now believe that Kim is committed to a new policy of engaging North Korea with the outside world.

In some ways, he had few choices. The policy shift has been produced in part by a desperate economic decline brought on by the failure of juche, a run of natural disasters and the loss of generous Soviet patronage, combined with a bold overture for reconciliation during the summer by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

Until the early 1970s, the two Koreas were economic equals. Three decades later, the average South Korean's income is at least 100 times greater than that of the average North Korean, regional economists say. By some estimates, famine has killed at least 2 million people--about one-tenth the population--in the North in recent years.

"He knows he needs to do something differently, and everything he's tried so far hasn't worked," said a senior U.S. official.

Kim Jong Il made clear that he's now trying to figure out a way to address U.S. concerns about North Korea's links with terrorism--mainly providing safe haven for four Japanese Red Army members responsible for a 1970 hijacking and "consorting" with other nations that sponsor terrorism--so that North Korea can become eligible for World Bank and International Monetary Fund aid. Pyongyang must get off the State Department's list of nations that support terrorism to qualify for either.

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