S. Korea Sees a New Side of North’s Kim


You’ve heard of the old Kim Jong Il, the pudgy, reclusive North Korean leader who has been accused of kidnapping film directors, masterminding foreign bombings and firing off missiles while his subjects starved.

The “dear leader” was rumored to drink heavily and enjoy the company of a team of women known as the “Pleasure Squad,” to own 30 luxury cars and 20,000 videos, to be phobic about germs and partial to Swedish blonds and Daffy Duck cartoons. It was even said--by South Korean intelligence sources--that the dissipated scion of North Korea’s Communist dynasty received blood transfusions from young virgins to delay decrepitude.

Now meet the new Kim Jong Il, the 58-year-old North Korean leader who is scheduled to host South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in June in the first summit between the bitter rivals since the Korean peninsula was divided after World War II.


In a reassessment as dramatic as any image make-over by Madison Avenue, the man once reviled here as a reckless playboy is now described by South Korean officials and foreign policy analysts as pragmatic, prudent and knowledgeable.

A senior South Korean official says Kim is believed to have a genius-level IQ of 150 or 160. An intelligence source describes him as a “computer wizard” who surfs the Internet, is fascinated with new technologies and is determined to develop North Korea’s fledgling software industry.

A leading South Korean scholar says that although Kim has not left his “Hermit Kingdom” since succeeding his late father in 1994, he is extremely well-informed about world affairs and reportedly watches a satellite television system in his office tuned to South Korean TV.

“Previous governments postulated Kim Jong Il as a wacko, but researchers tell us, ‘No, Kim Jong Il is very talented,’ ” the official said.

Whatever his personality quirks, Kim is now viewed by many South Korean academics, journalists and diplomats as a rational decision-maker, a strategist who has played a weak hand brilliantly, and a “deserving interlocutor” for the brainy Kim Dae Jung.

Conservatives fret that the wily North Korean could hoodwink the South Korean democracy advocate who has staked his place in history on reconciliation with the North.

That the promised summit will take place June 12 is by no means certain. Key arrangements--including how Kim Dae Jung will travel to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and what may be discussed there--must be negotiated at a preparatory meeting scheduled for Saturday in the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

Some analysts say the North agreed to talk to the South Korean “puppets” only after it realized that the U.S. and Japan were unlikely to provide the food, fuel and investment the North so desperately needs. Others argue that if the summit comes off, credit is partly due to Seoul’s newly respectful attitude, as well as to Kim Dae Jung’s promise to help North Korea redevelop its economy.

It doesn’t appear that the sober evaluation of North Korea’s leader is based on any startling new intelligence gleaned from the world’s most tightly controlled totalitarian state.

Although the increased flow of tourists, scholars, religious leaders and businesspeople to North Korea since Kim Dae Jung began his policy of engagement more than two years ago has improved the South’s intelligence assessment, the North still remains an enigma, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official says.

But it is primarily Kim Dae Jung’s determination to view North Korea without Cold War blinkers, and his purge of the top leadership of the South Korean intelligence services, that has led to a more objective evaluation of North Korea and its leadership, sources agree.

In an interview with Japanese television in February, Kim jettisoned decades of South Korean tradition by describing Kim Jong Il as “a pragmatic leader with good judgment and knowledge.”

That may have marked a turning point for an embattled North Korean leadership to whom legitimacy and assurances of regime survival are paramount, says Yonsei University political scientist Moon Chung In.

Since he moved into the president’s residence waving an olive branch at his bellicose northern neighbor, Kim Dae Jung has repeatedly instructed his intelligence services to neither insult nor underestimate the North Korean leader.

Despite Kim Jong Il’s portrayal in the South as an incompetent fanatic or an evil master bomber--and questions as to whether his grip on the military was sufficient to ensure his accession to power after the death of his father--he has been running North Korea since 1994 without evidence of challenges to his leadership, analysts say.

North Korea has not engaged in any provocative activities since the two Koreas’ navies clashed in June in a lucrative crab-fishing area in the Yellow Sea, noted Kwak Tae Hwan, president of the Korean Institute for National Unification.

The North has since been engaged in a heavy charm offensive. It has normalized relations with Italy, opened a diplomatic mission office in Hong Kong, sat down for talks with Japan, agreed to U.S. demands for a moratorium on missile-testing in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions, and tried to persuade the Clinton administration to remove North Korea from the list of nations that support terrorism.

Though results have so far been scant, Kim Jong Il has shown himself to be an adaptable leader capable of “calculating means and ends in a very rational manner” and of adjusting his policies accordingly, Kwak said.

Kim Dae Jung, a longtime scholar of North Korean affairs, apparently is determined to learn as much as possible about his counterpart. Kim once remarked that, while imprisoned for his dissident activities, he played imaginary games of political chess with the northern leader’s father, Kim Il Sung. “I think I won most of the time,” the South Korean confessed.

Since the surprise summit announcement earlier this month, Kim Dae Jung has been staying up late studying briefing papers about Kim Jong Il, the South Korean leader’s press secretary said.

Kim Dae Jung has long made it a point to meet with anyone who has been received by the North Korean leader, including Hyundai founder Chung Ju Young and his son. The South Korean president has been stunned by the gap between their impressions and the portrait drawn by South Korean intelligence, according to aides quoted by the Joong Ang Daily News newspaper.

Western analysts have long questioned the reliability of South Korean intelligence--and certainly that of South Korean propaganda.

Some of what is publicly known about Kim Jong Il comes from audiotapes of conversations with Kim that were made surreptitiously by kidnapped South Korean film actress Choi Eun Hee and her director husband, Shin Sang Ok, and handed over to South Korean intelligence after the pair escaped in 1986. Other details were presumably supplied by 1997 defector Hwang Jang Yop. But their tales and tapes were filtered through the South Korean intelligence services.

South Korean officials say that, in recent years, intelligence cooperation with the United States has been improving. But some intelligence netted by foreign eavesdroppers is assumed to be deliberate disinformation by a North Korean leadership that knows it is being watched and has for decades put a premium on deception.

“It’s a huge black box,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “I don’t think we know who his circle of advisors are, much less what they think--all of the rumors are just that. We know there is a cottage industry of assessing and perhaps creating rumors about Kim Jong Il in Seoul.”

Researchers believe that Kim Jong Il was born in Siberia in February 1942. He is thought not to speak Russian or any other foreign language, although that is not known with certainty, said Lee Jong Suk, a Kim-watcher at Seoul’s Sejong Institute.

Kim’s marital status also is unclear. Kim was reportedly married to a classmate at Kim Il Sung University, who bore a son. He divorced her and is believed to have later married a typist named Kim Yong Suk, with whom he reportedly had three children. So as to avoid any potential awkwardness, the South Koreans will not propose that Kim Dae Jung’s wife accompany the president to Pyongyang, Lee said.

When President Nixon went to China for a historic first meeting with Mao Tse-tung in 1972, “Nixon knew about 100 times as much about Mao as Kim Dae Jung can know about Kim Jong Il,” Eberstadt said.

South Korean officials and analysts said that if Kim makes it to Pyongyang, what will matter most is not intelligence or negotiating leverage but the first inklings of trust.

At the moment, the two Kims do not have a hotline linking their offices. Although they do have indirect telephone links between Seoul and Pyongyang, the lines rarely have been used, sources said. Seoul officials said they hope the summit will change at least that.


Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.