The madness of Kim Jong Il

The Observer Magazine (UK)/November 2, 2003

In 1978, Shin Sang-ok, South Korea's most famous movie director, was shoved into a car in Hong Kong, a burlap sack was placed over his head, and he was smuggled by ship to North Korea. His wife, Choe Eun-hui, a South Korean movie star, had been snatched a few weeks earlier. Shin spent the next five years in prison and re-education camps. For a time he survived on a diet of cornflour and grass. When he was released, he was presented to Kim Jong Il, then the son of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il is a fanatical cineaste who keeps a library of 15,000 films, and had for years been directing his own propaganda movies. Kim reunited the director with his wife. Then he took him to a movie studio and told him to get to work. This was the reason for Shin's abduction: 'The North Koreans asked me to improve their image by making good movies,' he told me recently. Shin was given $3m a year to make films and over the next three years - until the couple escaped during a trip to Vienna in 1986 - he made seven features, including Pulgasari, a monster movie based on Godzilla that has become an international cult classic, and another movie that included North Korea's first on-screen kiss. 'The North Koreans were all talented and good people,' he said when I visited his studio in Seoul. 'Just 200 or so were evil, and they were in charge.'

Shin, who is in his late seventies, cuts a dapper figure, lean and modishly tailored. In North Korea he was treated, following his release from prison, as a sort of royal pet and confidant. 'Kim Jong Il was a young guy who knew only Communist Korea, who thought with money and power people would stay there. He thought money could fix anything,' Shin said, adding: 'Kim Jong Il tries to understand capitalism through movies. James Bond was a favourite and he liked Rambo also, and Friday the 13th and Hong Kong action movies. But he doesn't know what fiction is. He looks at these movies as if they were records of reality.'

Still, Shin found Kim to be smart and funny. 'He listened to me because we were from South Korea,' Shin said. 'Even though we criticised some things, he wanted us to be honest. Others would have been killed for speaking so honestly.' While Kim regarded Hollywood fantasies as documentaries, he sometimes let on that he recognised North Korea to be a realm of make-believe. 'When Kim Jong Il let me meet my wife again after five years, there was a big party,' Shin said. 'An all-male band played, then a second, all-female band came out, and the women band members cheered him. Kim Jong Il patted my hand and said, "That's all fake." He knew the people didn't respect him.'

When Shin and his wife escaped from North Korea they carried with them secretly made recordings of private conversations with Kim Jong Il. On the tapes, Kim readily acknowledges that North Korea's brand of socialism is flawed; that its technology is at a 'kindergarten level'; that its people lack enterprise and motivation because they are given none of the individual incentives that competition thrives on; and that anyone else in North Korea who said any of these things would be considered an ideological deviant, and purged.

Shin spoke bitterly of the years he had lost in the North, yet even as he described Kim Jong Il's cynicism and called him an evil, controlling micromanager, most of his anger was reserved for South Korean leaders Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, who have abandoned a half-century of hostility to the north and established a rapprochement with Pyongyang. Shin has written a memoir of his kidnapping and sojourn in the North. It is entitled Our Escape Isn't Over Yet because, he said, 'South Korea is now sympathising with North Korea, and it's a dangerous situation.'

Most modern dictators have been self-made men, and it is the particular affliction of North Korea that Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, was a self-made deity. In his lifetime, state propaganda spoke of him as incomparable, omnipotent and infallible - 'the clairvoyant', Korea's 'sun', 'the perfect brain', capable even of determining the weather (at least when it was good) - and in 1998, four years after his death, the constitution was revised to install him as 'president for eternity'.

His son, Kim Jong Il, rules as much as a caretaker as he does as an heir; he is described merely as the 'Central Brain' and 'the morning star', a lesser light reflecting the sun's glow. In the early 70s, the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences expunged the definition of hereditary rule from its Dictionary of Political Terminologies - 'a reactionary custom of exploitative societies'. Yet even after he was publicly anointed successor to his father's throne in 1980, Kim Jong Il kept a low profile, tucked away in the regime's secret nerve centres, the Department of Propaganda and Agitation and the Department of Organisation and Guidance. Confucius said, 'When your father is alive, observe his will. When your father is dead, observe his former actions. If for three years you do not change from the ways of your father, you can be called a "real son".' The junior Kim earned that title. 'Expect no change from me,' he said after the Great Leader died, and for once he has kept his word.

Kim Jong Il says he regards 'the people' as 'the most beautiful and excellent beings in the world and deeply worships them'. But he doesn't trust them. In North Korea, the truth has never been a matter of fact so much as an expression of the Kims' whim - father and son. The great preponderance of this so-called truth is a confection of outright lies - not merely false but, more perniciously, a form of unreality, imposed with such relentlessness and violence on a people hermetically sealed from any alternative sources of information that it has become their own reality. His adoration, like a jealous lover's, is only rhetorically distinguishable from contempt. To maintain a kingdom of lies is to live in perpetual fear of being exposed, and the Pyongyang regime considers its insularity its proudest accomplishment, the key to its survival, and proof, as Kim Jong Il has said, that 'we have nothing to envy the rest of the world'. Indeed, despite the heavy doses of Stalinist and Maoist jargon in its economic policies and party doctrine, to speak of North Korea under the Kim dynasty simply as a Communist state is insufficient. In recent decades, references to Marxism and Leninism have steadily faded from its propaganda. Marx and Lenin were not Korean, and North Korea's ruling ideology, Juche - which means self-reliance - is predicated on being independent from the claims or destinies of other revolutions.

In its most obvious form, the Juche idea is a claim of radical autonomy: absolute political and economic independence for the Korean nation without any desire or need for traffic of any kind with other peoples. Kim Il Sung first promulgated this inward-turning, nativist ideology in 1955, when he officially distanced North Korea from Soviet patronage. The Kremlin regarded him as a canny ingrate. After all, with tens of thousands of American troops perched on permanent high alert across the demilitarised zone (DMZ), there was no gainsaying North Korea's strategic significance as a Cold War buffer state, and no question that, despite Kim's posturing, he'd retain the vital support of Moscow and Beijing. Yet even as North Korea grew ever more indebted to its Communist trading partners, the separatist teachings of Juche developed into Pyongyang's paramount doctrine, and the idea came to stand for something more inchoate than it had at first appeared.

A vast quantity of largely incoherent prose attempting to explain Juche has been written in North Korea, but the effort collapses beneath its own weight. Even Bruce Cumings, the American scholar of Korean history and thought, throws up his hands. 'The term is really untranslatable; the closer one gets to its meaning, the more the meaning slips away,' he writes in Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. 'For a foreigner, its meaning recedes into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean, and therefore it is ultimately inaccessible to the non-Korean. Juche is the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.'

Nowhere has Pyongyang's mythology of self-sufficiency been so painfully laid bare as in the record of the state's economic devastation since the disappearance of the Soviet empire. In the mid-50s, when Juche was introduced, North Korea, which had been the centre of industrial development under the Japanese, was more prosperous than the predominantly agrarian South. But by 1970, the balance had shifted. Since then, the South's economy has grown to become the 12th largest on earth, while the North's steadily declined and is now estimated to rank somewhere below Burundi's. The North devoted the bulk of its limited resources to outdated heavy industry and military expenditures, imposing one antiquated, Stalinist economic plan after another with such a radical disregard for markets that it became dependent on Soviet largesse to feed its people and supply its fuel. Then suddenly, in 1991, there was no Soviet Union, and although China took up some of the slack, North Koreans discovered that self-reliance meant hunger, cold and darkness.

In his later years, Kim Il Sung built a medical institute in Pyongyang for the sole purpose of prolonging his life. There, surrounded by Western doctors and an army of nutritionists, masseurs, homeopaths and the like, he was fed a diet of foods grown just for him. Meanwhile, across the countryside, his unaccountable scheme for bolstering the food supply by growing corn on the terraced slopes of vertiginous valleys was ending in catastrophe, as heavy rains washed the efforts away, clogging streams and rivers with silt, which in turn triggered flooding that wiped out perfectly good crop lands. Industry was grinding to a halt, reduced to less than half its production capacity by lack of fuel and raw materials.

The news of Kim Il Sung's death in 1994 was greeted by wild public mourning - seas of gaunt people in coarse cotton clothing and little caps, their hard faces riven by grief and streaming with tears. The soundtrack on the film clips is otherworldly, a deep owlish moaning. The intensity of this grief is made all the more haunting by the knowledge that Kim Il Sung had left his people destitute. 'The government rationing system began to shrink steadily after 1994, and people began to die of hunger in 1995,'

Kim Chol, a North Korean defector I met in Seoul, told me. 'At first, they would give 15 days' food for a month. Then, after several months, they went to 10 days for several months. And the rationing wasn't even steady - people waited and waited.'

Kim Chol is a university student, slight and slender, with bristling hair and gold spectacles. He speaks softly, in a measured monotone. But there was no mistaking his intensity as he shut his eyes and recalled his parents' sense that they had been betrayed by their god in the early 90s, when, as party loyalists, they were granted permission to visit relatives in an ethnic Korean enclave just across the frontier in northeast China. They returned in 'total shock', with news that the North had started the Korean War, was to blame for Korea's division and that 'Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il governed for themselves and not for the good of the country and its people'.

Kim Chol's father worked as a novelist at the steel mill in Chongjin, where he was required, under the supervision of a section of the Department of Propaganda and Agitation, to spend his days producing volume after volume of stories about the lives of factory workers. 'It was a respected job, but not well paid,' Kim said. Because a writer is considered not an artist but a labourer, the family had been rewarded with a housing allocation in the best apartment building in the city - a place reserved for elite steel workers - 'specifically built to show Kim Il Sung, to reassure him that all North Korean people were living well'. The apartment had two rooms and a small balcony, cold running water and electricity, but no heat in winter. Kim lived there with his parents and three older sisters for 20 years.

Normally, one had to go to Pyongyang to see apartments of such high quality. Pyongyang is North Korea's model city, full of model schools and model hospitals and model people: residence is reserved for the party's chosen, the political and military elite, the commissars and cadres and their most faithful followers, and the population is regularly cleansed of those deemed ideologically lax, as well as the old, the sick, the disfigured and the lame, who are banished to the provinces and replaced by a fresh crop of loyalists. It is a city of megalomaniacal architecture and public spaces: immense palaces and coliseums, grandiose boulevards, towering monuments to the Great Leader, meandering greenways, prim topiary gardens and skyscrapers (although the tallest is a shell, abandoned as structurally unusable during its construction). It is a city built to awe the rare emissaries from the outside world who are granted visas, and to glorify the Leader, who shuttles between his palaces, unseen, in a darkened car that speeds down streets cleared for his passage.

Kim Chol had no complaints as a child, at the People's Elementary School, where every pupil was drilled in air-raid procedures and taught to march. 'I was satisfied with everything until I graduated from secondary school,' he said. 'Everything was OK - not great, but security was provided for.' Then his parents came back from their fateful trip to China and took him aside, and everything wasn't OK any more. The supreme fiction of all North Korean propaganda, to which all other mystifications must conform, is Pyongyang's claim that the war was started by the United States and not by Kim Il Sung. It wasn't only a question of the war, and the self-serving leadership, Kim Chol said. 'I also learnt that in China people were living well and that South Korea was very rich, while North Korea was very poor.' His parents didn't tell his sisters these things. To speak such truths to too many people, no matter how close, was 'suicide'.

Every North Korean is classified through a registry in Pyongyang that divides the population - nearly 23m people - into three groups. At the top is the 'core class' of party members, the political and military elite who enjoy preference in education, employment and virtually all other social and economic benefits, including food, clothing and shelter. In the middle are the masses, the 'wavering class', composed of the peasants and workers who are tirelessly extolled in party rhetoric, but whose ration cards, before the famine, allowed them only dog meat when the core class got pork or beef. On the bottom is the 'impure' or 'hostile class', in which the ideologically unsound - members of the pre-revolutionary 'exploiting class', former landowners, businessmen, pro-Japanese colonial collaborators and people with family members who have defected to the South - are lumped together with the handicapped and common criminals.

To ensure that North Koreans know they are being watched without knowing by whom, the state maintains three separate internal security forces, which report to the leadership, but not to one another. In addition, people who work together are usually assigned to live together in the same housing blocks, and to take part in near-daily indoctrination and self-criticism sessions, from which nobody in North Korea except the Leader is exempt. Underpinning this whole apparatus - the most invasive and pervasive scheme for creating a monolithic culture in history - is a principle of collective family responsibility that makes every member of a household accountable for the conduct of his immediate kin, so that the deviations of one are the calamity of all.

'The government doesn't just put one or two people in jail - it puts all the family in jail, wiping everybody out, the innocent along with the guilty, as the broom wipes out the dirt,' said a defector who called himself Chang Chol-woo, an alias, assumed because he didn't want to bring trouble on his family in the North. Who, in such an order, could dare to speak, or even know, his own mind?

There is no saying how many North Koreans have been purged over the years, but the exact number - however staggering - is almost beside the point. While defectors tend to speak of the camps, from experience or hearsay or lifelong dread, as 'worse than death', the difference between being imprisoned and being free in North Korea is more one of degree than of kind. The entire place functions as a concentration camp, designed not only to keep its inmates captive but, equally, to keep the rest of the world out.

In the former East Germany, a zone where topography prevented the penetration of radio and television signals from the West was known as a 'valley where they have no idea'. All of North Korea is such a zone, not because of its mountainous landscape, but because every radio and TV set is made to receive only one signal, Pyongyang's propaganda channel, which carries such messages as: 'Today, the world's people are consistently envious of our people, calling our people the people blessed with the Leader.' Kim Chol's parents brought a radio back from China. 'At the border, they cut the wires so it would only get North Korean broadcasting,' he said. 'But I was studying electronics, and I reconnected it and began listening to South Korean radio at night under the covers.'

Although Kim no longer believed North Korean propaganda, he had been so deeply formed by it that he found the news from South Korea equally suspect. Listening to his hot-wired radio was a crime that could have landed his whole family in the camps, and he still didn't know how to determine what was real. 'I believed my parents,' he said, 'but when I heard Seoul saying that one car company was producing 100 new taxis I didn't believe it, because that meant there were taxis in South Korea, and for that South Korea had to be very rich.' Then again, when he saw clips on North Korean state television of violent student demonstrations in South Korea, he couldn't avoid the impression that South Korea looked better off.

'I would observe the clothes and the apartments in the background, and the clothes and houses were neat and great,' Kim said. He wasn't the only one who noticed. 'Later, the North Korean broadcasters made the pictures blurry,' he said. 'So you couldn't see the details, only the street fighting.' One of Kim Jong Il's first policy initiatives after his father's death in 1994 was to call on the United Nations' World Food Programme for help in feeding North Korea's famished population. At first, this request, which amounted to an admission of the state's destitution, was seen as an astonishing softening of the Juche line. The sort of international assistance that would be required to compensate for the near-50 per cent food deficit in North Korea always comes with conditions from donors and creates pressure for political and economic reform on the recipient. But it quickly became clear that Kim Jong Il was not prepared to expose his country to the scrutiny of foreign agents just to save the people from starvation. On the contrary, the regime, having declared itself in need, appeared bent on preventing anyone from seeing the extent of the famine. The few, individually vetted foreign aid workers who received visas were mostly kept penned up in Pyongyang and allowed to visit rural areas only under the strict control of government handlers. What they saw on these guided tours perplexed them. Andrew Natsios, currently the head of USAID, was in North Korea at the time as an officer of the humanitarian organisation World Vision, and he describes the problem in his book The Great North Korean Famine:

'Before expatriate relief workers entered a city or rural area to do their work, the local authorities swept the streets of any evidence of famine. Beggars, emaciated people, abandoned children, debris and dead bodies were removed from the streets. People were told to stay indoors if they did not have presentable clothing to wear. One relief worker who spoke Korean watched a truck drive through a village just before the arrival of a visiting non-governmental organisation [NGO] delegation, announcing over a loudspeaker that people should get off the streets. Only party members were permitted outside their homes to take their ration of food aid while the NGO food monitors were in the city.'

It was only as increasing numbers of North Koreans began crossing the shallow - and for a good part of the year frozen - Tumen River into China, and talking to foreign journalists and aid workers there, that this masquerade began to be understood. The escapees described the North Korea that foreigners never saw as a wasteland, its factories shuttered, its tractors and trucks running on wood-burning steam engines, its once-efficient food-rationing system defunct, whole villages standing empty - mass graves here, bodies lying uncollected there, and scavenging bands of skeletal orphans roving everywhere, gnawing on bark and leaves. Those who made it to China tended to come in tattered clothing, with their feet wrapped in rags; few had much flesh on their bones, and their hair was often blanched by malnutrition.

Lee Young-suk, a former nurse, showed me pictures of herself and her husband, a retired army officer, on the day they arrived in China. They were small people to begin with, and in the photos, seated beside a roly-poly Chinese priest who had given them shelter, they looked so shrunken they might have been mistaken for a child's toys.

'At first, we didn't intend to come, because all our family were party members, so we were a well-off family,' Lee said. 'But after Kim Il Sung's death our financial situation got very much worse.' Her husband had no pension, there were no rations, and they had stripped their house bare, bartering all their belongings for food. 'Even though we were retired and starving, we had to work for the party. They called it social projects, working two hours for no pay at such things as early-morning indoctrination meetings and making fertiliser. But we didn't have much strength.' Her husband was furious when Lee first suggested going to China for rice. 'But our eldest son had already gone to China, and a state security agent came looking for him. We lied, but they kept coming and asking. So one day my husband said this was getting dangerous and they could send us to prison. We ran away in August 1997, crossed the Tumen River and went to a church there. They welcomed us.'

Lee became agitated as she spoke; she sat on the floor of her tiny bedroom in Seoul with her legs tucked under her, and she began to cry, quietly - almost, it seemed, ineptly, as if she didn't know how to cry, and disapproved of crying, and at the same time could not cry enough. 'My son who was shot to death in the military... his officer ordered him to steal pigs,' she said. 'So he got angry and said, "I came to the military for my country's unification and for killing Americans, not to become a thief." They started to fight, and the officer knocked him down and shot him dead.' She said it made her ill for days on end to think of her past, and the children and grandchildren she had lost. Then, just as abruptly, she stopped crying. 'I want to tell you about the deaths of my grandchildren,' she said. 'We used to eat grass soup with grass powder and my grandchild asked for rice. I told her we couldn't have rice because we had to starve for 10 days. Whenever I eat rice now, I feel very sad.'

Lee's hands caught each other in midair and settled for a moment in her lap. 'Before I found God, I drank a lot, and I drank a lot of alcohol in front of the graves of my children. I want to tear Kim Jong Il to death. My eldest son's wife and two of their children died of hunger. Their father had been working at a chemical-weapons factory, and they were starving. Two grandsons were starving - eight and 10 years old. They went to a noodle seller, and begged. The noodle seller gave them some noodles. They ate and fell asleep on the shop floor. Then the owner killed them with an axe to put their meat into the noodles, because pork was very expensive at the time.'

Refugees' stories are often treated with suspicion, but in the late 90s, as the number of malnourished North Koreans in northeast China swelled from the thousands to the tens of thousands and then into the hundreds of thousands, their accounts of the conditions that had driven them to risk their lives and escape had a cumulative authority that defied disbelief. What's more, the fact that they were there - that so many had got out - was, in itself, evidence of a radical breakdown inside North Korea.

Many of the refugees had crossed the river in broad daylight, seemingly in plain view of guards who were too weak with cold and hunger either to notice or to care. The situation on the border was constantly changing. The same guards who were nowhere to be seen one day were out hunting the next, often crossing into China to round up escapees, sometimes piercing their hands or noses to string them together and march them home.

It is estimated that starvation has killed between 2m and 3m North Koreans in the past decade - a 10th of the population. When foreign governments and international organisations demanded greater transparency in exchange for food, Kim Jong Il warned that 'Imperialist aid is a noose of plunder and subjugation, aimed at robbing 10 and even 100 things for one thing that is given.' Many megatons of food aid did get through and lives were saved. But by all accounts the bulk of it was hijacked by the state to keep the party elite, and especially the military, fed and faithful.

As more factories fell idle and were stripped down and carted off in their entirety, or as scrap, to be traded for food in China, Kim Jong Il cranked up the only non-military machinery he had left - ideology, propaganda, the engines of Juche. True revolutionaries, the party newspaper explained, 'sacrifice themselves on the glorious road of revolution with a clean revolutionary conscience, because they also firmly believe that the revolutionary cause led by their Leader is most just'. But the passion North Koreans felt for Kim Il Sung, which was genuine, however misplaced and deluded, does not appear to have been transferred to Kim Jong Il, who is remote and secretive and lacks his father's populist touch. He has only once spoken before the general public, at a military parade in 1992, when he was heard to blurt out: 'Glory to the heroic Korean People's Army.'

The horrible weirdness of North Korea makes the place easier to parody than to make sense of, and it is folly to make too much sense of it. For anyone not in their thrall or under their thumb, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il appear so monstrous and so aberrant that it is almost an insult to reason to acknowledge that their primitive, impoverished ideology is not an expression of madness. But the truth is scarier: from within the narrow parameters of its own fanatical self-interest - and notwithstanding its lying, its wildness, its imprudence, its cruelty, its capriciousness, its paranoia, its messianic pretensions, and its desperation - the Pyongyang regime behaves rationally. Kim Jong Il's purpose as a ruler is to sustain his power by any and all means, and whether he believes his own propaganda is, at this point, irrelevant.

Never has such a small, economically weak state succeeded in making such a big deal of itself for so long. That North Korea has done so is a consequence of the fact that, while Pyongyang demands that others leave it alone, it has never seen fit to return the favour. From behind its barbed wire, North Korea has been on a constant war footing for 50 years, maintaining one of the biggest armies on earth, with 1m battle-ready men and the largest special-ops force anywhere - 100,000 strong. Since the Korean War, the North has repeatedly gone on the attack: kidnapping Japanese and South Korean citizens; digging tunnels through the bedrock below the DMZ into South Korea, tunnels big enough for an invasion force to pass through at a rate of 10 soldiers a minute; sending an assassination team to Seoul to kill the president; bludgeoning to death with axes two American officers in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ; blowing up and killing seven senior members of a South Korean delegation to Burma; initiating countless naval battles with Southern ships, resulting in numerous fatalities; sending a submarine to land commandos in the South; launching a missile over Japan. The list goes on.

While the majority of these attacks has been aimed at South Korea, the chief target of Pyongyang's verbal assaults over the same half century has been the United States, the archenemy, and in the North's propaganda it is Washington that is perpetually on the offensive. Even the mildest statements of Yankee disdain for the Kim dynasty are treated as aggressive, tantamount to declarations of imminent invasion. Of course, to be forever at war with such a powerful foe makes a small country feel bigger. And the intensity of the Kims' anti-American harangues has had a galvanic effect on North Koreans. In a typical outburst, in 1968, Kim Il Sung declared: 'The peoples of all countries making revolution should tear limbs off the US beast and behead it all over the world. The US imperialists appear to be strong, but when the peoples of many countries attack them from all sides and join in mutilating them in that way, they will become impotent and bite the dust in the end.'

Kim Jong Il runs North Korea as a criminal syndicate, maintaining his kingdom with money earnt primarily from arms trading, drug-running, money-counterfeiting and foreign aid. He spends the money on his own pleasures - lavish feasts, flocks of dancing girls, barrels of fine wines, fleets of Mercedes-Benz sedans to dole out as gifts - and on the People's Army. The only thing the country still produces that has much export value is weaponry. A recently published National Geographic map of North Korea shows 10 missile facilities, home to an impressive assortment of Scuds and short-range and medium-range missiles. The Pentagon believes a long-range missile is in the works, capable of carrying a warhead of several hundred pounds to Hawaii or Alaska. These missiles are for sale to anyone, and selling them to other governments is perfectly legal, as the Bush administration was reminded after it was obliged earlier this year to allow an intercepted shipment of North Korean Scuds bound for Yemen to continue on its way. The North has been seeking nuclear weapons for at least 40 years, and has had a nuclear-weapons programme since the late 70s. In 1985, Pyongyang signed on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows it to acquire nuclear reactors for energy production. It wasn't until 1992, however, that the North agreed to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to its plutonium-production reactors.

The inspectors soon noticed discrepancies in Pyongyang's accounting of its reprocessing activities. The CIA estimated enough plutonium was missing to make an atomic bomb or two, and it has assumed ever since that North Korea has the bomb, though not yet the missile capability to deliver a nuclear warhead. That assumption is now widely shared, despite the general propensity to describe Kim Jong Il as seeking - rather than already having - a nuclear arsenal. This rhetorical ambiguity reflects how little anybody knows about what Kim Jong Il is up to - anybody, that is, except the Central Brain himself, who has so far exploited the North's secrecy to keep the outside world uncertain and off kilter while he stage-manages the crises he creates.

In Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the fundamental principle of Cold War strategy is articulated by Dr Strangelove in a spasm of sublime indignation: 'The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.' It would be fanciful to suggest that Pyongyang wanted the IAEA to discover its missing plutonium, but once the North's capacity to make atomic bombs was revealed and Washington responded with alarm, Kim Jong Il - already the master of Pyongyang's ceremonies as his father neared death - grasped the tremendous international leverage the mystery of his nuclear capability gave him. The incoming Clinton administration could only speculate about whether the North had the bomb, was on the brink of getting it, or was merely bluffing. Then, in the spring of 1993, when America revived joint military exercises and war games with the South Korean army, Pyongyang threatened to gin up its own war machine and pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

There were murmurs in Washington about preemptive strikes against North Korea's nuclear reactors, but Clinton dispatched negotiators instead. Nukes or no nukes, Kim Jong Il's true power of deterrence resides in his conventional arsenal - above all, the 11,000 artillery pieces that are dug into underground bunkers along the edge of the DMZ and aimed at South Korea.

In 1994, Pyongyang signed a pact with Washington to remain engaged in negotiations. The Agreed Framework, as it is known, was based on the diplomatic conceit that the North's nuclear programme had never had military purposes but was intended merely for generating energy. Pyongyang pledged to freeze, and ultimately dismantle, its plutonium-production reactors, and to place these facilities under IAEA supervision. Washington promised to supply 500,000 barrels a year of heavy fuel oil for generating heat and electricity until a couple of energy-producing reactors, to be supplied by South Korea and Japan, were up and running. Economic and diplomatic relations were also supposed to be normalised, but, as Wendy Sherman, who was a special adviser on North Korea to Clinton, recalls, the feeling in Washington was that the Agreed Framework was just a stopgap measure, pending 'fundamental change' in North Korea. 'We thought that 1m or 2m people dying of starvation and a collapsing economy would bring the end of the North Korean government within two or three years. We were totally wrong.'

Seven years after the Agreed Framework was signed, the new Bush administration essentially abandoned negotiations with Korea without proposing an alternative policy. The Agreed Framework was all but scrapped. American officials said they would not give in to 'nuclear blackmail' or 'reward bad behaviour'. Early last year, as Bush was making the case for the war on terror, he included North Korea in his State of the Union address as one of the troika of states, along with Iraq and Iran, that 'constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world'. Kim Jong Il responded as if Bush had declared war. North Korea's state news agency dubbed America the 'empire of the devil,' and demanded a retraction.

A period of heated talk ensued. Bush told a group of senators that Kim Jong Il was a 'pygmy' who acts like 'a spoiled child at a dinner table' and who was 'starving his own people'. Kim's phrasemakers responded in kind, and Korea hands and editorialists the world over lamented that Bush had lost Korea through recklessness in a time of danger. Then, last fall, when the Bush administration was mobilising military and diplomatic resources in preparation for war in Iraq, Pyongyang acknowledged that it hadn't halted its nuclear-weapons programme after all: a project to produce highly enriched uranium had been under way since 1998. Although Washington promptly cut off heavy-fuel shipments to the North, its response to this unwelcome distraction from Iraq was little more than a shrug. North Korea, however, was determined not to be ignored. In short order, it threw out the IAEA inspectors, shut down their monitoring cameras, withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and declared that it was reprocessing the contents of some 8,000 spent fuel rods from its formerly frozen reactors. If that's true, the North now has the plutonium necessary to manufacture half a dozen atomic bombs.

Nevertheless, America's relative inattention to North Korea may end up looking like a deliberate policy after all, along the lines of what Victor Cha, a scholar of Korean affairs at Georgetown University, has described as 'hawkish engagement' or 'coercive diplomacy' - a strategy that holds out the prospect of talks under a persuasive threat of action, such as severe sanctions, or an embargo backed by a blockade, to begin with, and, beyond that, the prospect of overwhelming force. The Bush administration has refused to allow Kim Jong Il to dictate the terms of discussion, thus obliging his neighbours to take up the slack.

A Western diplomat in Seoul described Korea to me as 'the peninsula of bad options'. We were talking about how the South's position as a hostage to the North's artillery makes it a wild card in any attempt to address the nuclear crisis. Public sentiment in the South - manifested in opinion polls and anti-American demonstrations - has often seemed to sympathise with Pyongyang's complaint that it is the Bush administration's hawkishness that is disturbing Korea's truce. This feeling, which is especially pronounced among South Koreans in their twenties, who have no memory of the Korean War, was exacerbated last year, following a road accident in which a US army vehicle struck and killed two South Korean girls. A Pew Research Centre survey, released shortly before the multilateral talks began in Beijing at the end of August, found South Koreans regard North Korea as a lesser danger to the region than do Australians, Americans, Germans, the British and Canadians.

Horace H Underwood, the executive director of the Fulbright programme in South Korea, recalled his surprise on visiting the US last Christmas to find stories about North Korea's nuclear programme on the front pages of newspapers 'in vanishingly small places that never have international news'. In Seoul, he said, 'Nobody's paying attention. They're worried about a parking spot.' Underwood, who comes from a long line of Presbyterian missionaries in Korea - his father and grandfather were born there, and he has called Seoul home for most of his life - couldn't decide whether the apathy about North Korea was a result of realism born of experience, or evidence of a naive and defensively willed obliviousness. Another longtime American resident of Seoul said: 'Underlying this is a strong sense of nationalism. Some people here feel an odd satisfaction when North Koreans launch a missile over Japan. You know, at least they can stand up for themselves.'

Despite initial reluctance, the South Korean government sent a contingent of noncombatant troops to join the American forces in Iraq this spring, but the government remains steadfastly neutral on the question of whether the North has nukes or is bluffing. 'Some people in the Bush administration wonder why South Koreans don't take it a little more seriously,' a Western intelligence officer told me. After a moment, he had his answer: 'It's like so much of their history - they're pinned between more powerful surrounding powers, and they don't know how to leverage their own interests. To be dependent for security on the foreigners their history has taught them to fear and suspect... I guess we have to pardon them if this makes them a bit schizophrenic.' Besides, he said, 'they've been living with what we call threat denial for a long time, and you're always more vulnerable when you're not in touch with reality.'

What South Koreans fear more than the North's weaponry is its economic weakness. After a brief spasm of sympathetic euphoria at the spectacle of the Berlin Wall being torn down, South Koreans watched German reunification with a sense of horror at the sheer cost to capitalist West Germany of merging with the post-Communist East. West Germany had far greater resources and greater political stability than South Korea, while the North's needs were almost immeasurably greater than East Germany's, and its population vastly more hapless. South Koreans tend to view the 3,000 North Korean defectors in their midst as a major social problem, perhaps because they represent a much larger possibility. 'These are people who have been socialised for 50 years into a totalitarian culture, and suddenly they have to make choices about their lives and have no clue how to do it,' Wendy Sherman said. 'Imagine 23m people having to do that.'

Even before the Soviet empire's collapse, the South's dictators and the conservative governments that succeeded them were hardly in a rush to assume the costs of reunification that their rhetoric called for. By the mid-90s, the conviction took hold among Southerners that they simply couldn't afford to absorb the wreck the North had become. One wishful thought led to another: perhaps North Korea, in its weakened condition, shorn of its Cold War patrons, wasn't such a threat any more; perhaps it really wanted to change, too, and just needed a helping hand.

Kim Jong Il has cannily played the South's fears to his advantage. He has reaped enormous financial and political support from the fact that, in 1987, after nearly 40 years of dictatorial rule, South Korea made the transition to democracy, and the majority of its people now vote according to their pocketbooks. Never mind that South Korea's constitution proclaims national reunification to be the absolute objective of the republic, and that 'one Korea' implies the same sacred mission in the South as it does in the North: victory over the impostor regime occupying the other half of the country. For the past five years, under two successive administrations, Seoul has abandoned its long-standing antagonism toward Pyongyang, adopting instead a policy of engagement, aimed at propping up North Korea with aid and trade. In practice, this means maintaining the Kim dynasty and the division of the peninsula.

This 'sunshine policy' was introduced in 1998 by Kim Dae Jung, who was elected president on a platform of peaceful coexistence with North Korea. DJ, as he is known, had for much of the previous half century enjoyed a reputation as the most prominent domestic opponent of Seoul's military dictators. Once in office, he promoted reconciliation as the stepping stone toward eventual reunification - perhaps in a generation or two. The key to this gradualist approach was economic incentives. As the North savoured the benefits of its gentle opening, rail, road, and air links would punch through the DMZ; military de-escalation would follow; Pyongyang would recognise the rewards of market reforms, and perhaps even be enticed toward a relaxation of social control. That was the idea: to coax North Korea in a direction that would make it more like contemporary China, which has in the past decade replaced America as South Korea's biggest trading partner, and which also has no desire to see Pyongyang collapse. China does not want to be flooded with refugees, or have American troops move up from South Korea to its border.

The sunshine policy didn't address human rights or democracy. Business came first, and to speak of anything more 'sensitive' was considered tantamount to giving up the game before it began. While the ultimate aim of the policy might be a more secure Korea, its most immediate objective was to prove its own value by winning Kim Dae Jung the opportunity to create a spectacular and emotionally charged image of a new Korean order: a handshake with the North Korean leader. DJ said that it was his lifelong dream to be the first South Korean leader to set foot on North Korean soil and in June 2000, a children's choir sang, 'Our wish is unification' as he flew off to Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Il surprised Kim Dae Jung by venturing into public and greeting him at the airport. The Dear Leader, with his pompadour, short zippered jacket, and shades, presented himself as a puckish charmer, relaxed, courteous, statesmanly, the perfect host. A brass band played; soldiers goose-stepped past bobbing red balloons; throngs of civilians, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, leapt and flailed, chanting their leader's name. The two Kims were seen holding hands. DJ released a message saying, 'We are one people. We share the same fate. I love you all.'

Eleven million Korean families have been divided, along with the country, at the 38th parallel, and the Southern delegation was permitted to bring along a few members of such families to meet with their relatives in the North. Scenes of these wailing, tearful, and painfully brief public reunions played over and over on South Korean TV, and the promise of more and bigger reunions to come was held out as incontrovertible proof of the sunshine policy's triumph. To be sure, North Korean handlers blocked South Korean reporters from venturing out of their hotel to have a look around in their free time. But the two leaders concluded their talks with a joint declaration of agreement to continue a high-level dialogue 'to solve the question of the country's reunification independently by the concerted efforts of the Korean nation responsible for it' - and the summit was celebrated in the international press. 'There is no going back now,' the BBC announced. 'The world's last Stalinist state has embarked on the road to ending its isolation.'

At the summit's farewell lunch, Kim Jong Il teased: 'As far as drinking goes, I'm a better drinker than Kim Dae Jung.' He could afford to be: in order to make Kim Dae Jung's dream come true, officers of South Korea's giant Hyundai conglomerate, acting as the president's surrogates, had secretly, and under the South's national-security laws, illegally transferred $100m of government money into Kim Jong Il's coffers. Six months after the 'two-Kim summit', Kim Dae Jung travelled to Oslo to collect a Nobel Peace Prize. By the time he left office, early this year, however, the truth had come out: DJ had effectively bought the meeting and, Koreans now say, bought the prize. His subsequent disgrace is all he has to show for it.

But the sunshine policy lives on, albeit under the alias 'peace and prosperity'. The phrase was coined by South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, who was elected to succeed Kim last year. Roh, a former human-rights lawyer, is the first South Korean president to have made no mention in his inaugural address of the restoration of the Korean nation. 'Our government does not emphasise unification,' one of his top foreign-policy advisers told me. 'Our approach, our policy, is basically cautious in dealing with North Korea,' he said, 'because North Korea's future has a great impact on our economic prosperity and political stability.'

Whether the South is more secure since abandoning its hostile stance toward the North is a matter of bitter debate. When Kim Dae Jung went to Pyongyang as a man of peace, he also went as a sort of conquering hero, operating on the assumption that the South had effectively won the Cold War in Korea and that its superior position allowed it to be magnanimous in hammering out the terms of the peace. But Kim Jong Il saw the South come knocking. He opened the door and was happy to let Kim Dae Jung claim the credit for doing so. By declaring that the sunshine policy was merely a gentler strategy for wearing him down and finishing him off, the South offered him no incentive to change his ways, but it did suggest a clear counter strategy - keep threatening to close the door, keep playing hard to get, keep asking for more kindness and greater gentleness. No wonder the Dear Leader was in such a jovial mood at the summit - Kim Dae Jung had just thrown him a lifeline. In exchange for hollow gestures, Seoul was prepared to expend enormous amounts of political capital and hard cash.

That suited Kim Jong Il's understanding of inter-Korean exchange: the South gives and he takes. DJ released dozens of political prisoners from the North, and Kim Jung Il sent back none. In mid-April, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution calling on Pyongyang to give full access to international investigators so that they could follow up reports of such systemic abuses as torture, public executions, forced-labour camps. It was the first time the UN had addressed North Korea's human-rights abuses so formally, and although South Korea had a seat on the commission, it did not vote for the resolution, or even abstain. South Korea simply didn't show up.

'It's just nonsensical - it's incomprehensible,' Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector, said to me when we met in Seoul a few weeks later. Kang, the grandson of a devout party loyalist, lived in comfort in Pyongyang as a little boy. He had adored Kim Il Sung. But in 1977, when he was nine years old, he and his family were purged and trucked off to the Yodok prison camp. Kang has written a memoir of his captivity, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and still isn't sure why they were sent there or why, after 10 years, they were released. In his book, he describes how the brutality of the gulag is the ultimate refinement of the North Korean system.

Kang, who now works as a newspaper reporter in the South, regarded both the fanfare of the sunshine policy and the caution of Roh Moo Hyun's peace-and-prosperity approach as hopelessly naive, and as something worse than appeasement, more like capitulation. If the issue is protecting the South's pocketbook, he said, then what about the South Korean stock market's 5 per cent plunge when North Korea admitted to having a nuclear-weapons programme, and the enormous defence expenditures on both sides of the DMZ? 'If you want to talk about the economy of reunification, talk also about the savings,' he said. 'And if South Korea thinks of absorbing North Korea and modernising it, it should speak not of helping and charity but, rather, of investment.' After the UN human-rights vote, he wondered, 'Why doesn't this government think about the situation it will face after unification when North Koreans ask why it didn't care about human rights?'

Kang was incensed that the South had softened its rhetoric about Pyongyang at the peak of the North Korean famine, when the North was at its most vulnerable and could not have survived without support. Until 1997, South Korean broadcasts criticised Kim Jong Il. But now, Kang said, when there are more radios than ever entering North Korea from China, and 'most people there are not sure whether their regime is right or not, whether Kim Jong Il can be believed and trusted or not,' the messages they hear from Seoul leave them wondering 'if the South Korean government is really against them and pro-Kim Jong Il.' Kang was in despair at official shortsightedness. He wanted to see regime change in North Korea. 'If the same situation happens in North Korea as Iraq,' he said, 'then North Korea will collapse faster than Iraq, because in Iraq they have their Allah, but Kim Jong Il is a weaker self-made god.'

Washington's appetite for a confrontation with Pyongyang soured over the summer, as success in Iraq proved elusive. Kim Jong Il still seeks to shape the agenda, demanding a non-aggression pact with Washington as the only possible solution to the nuclear crisis. The Americans refused, until last week when Bush made conciliatory proposals, Washington had insisted that there was nothing to talk about until North Korea gave up its nuclear ambitions, and that nuclear proliferation was not merely Washington's problem but a threat to all the northeast Asian countries. There was increasing talk in Tokyo of the need for a nuclear deterrent to maintain balance in the neighbourhood, and the possibility of a militarily resurgent Japan and a broader regional arms race was worrying to China, Russia and South Korea. Beijing took the initiative, in April, hosting American and North Korean diplomats for a few days of talks. Washington touted North Korea's participation in a multi-lateral process as evidence that it had been chastened by the attack on Iraq a few weeks earlier. The North Korean state news agency responded to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by declaring that the lesson was clear: a nuclear weapon is the only way to keep the Americans at bay.

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