At home, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is hailed by state-run media as a prodigious general, an ace film director and the “Lodestar of the 21st Century.”
To the outside world, he is a ruthless dictator seeking weapons of mass destruction while starving his people.
Kim, 64, has often alarmed the world with his saber-rattling. On Wednesday, he brandished one of his strongest cards by test-launching seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 that some analysts say could be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Kim took power after his father and North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994 at the age of 82 in communism’s first hereditary transfer of authority.
He is revered at home with almost the same personality cult that flourished around his father, the country’s “eternal president.”
North Korean media credit Kim with turning the nation into an “ideological and military power” with his “songun,” or “military-first,” policy. He controls the 1.1 million-strong People’s Army, the world’s fifth-largest, though it is short of fuel and spare parts for its aging equipment.
Activists estimate that up to 2 million North Koreans died of malnutrition or related ailments in the mid- and late-1990s, when North Korea’s chronically inefficient farming industry was beset by a series of floods and droughts.
Kim’s latest standoff with the United States began in 2002 when Washington accused Pyongyang of developing a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of an earlier accord not to do so.
Since then, Kim has taken a series of provocative steps, including a claim that his country has completed building atomic bombs. That could not be independently confirmed, but some experts now believe North Korea may have separated plutonium enough to develop an arsenal of four to 13 nuclear weapons, compared with estimates of one or two nuclear weapons in 2000.
Kim rarely appears in public and his voice is seldom broadcast. But defectors from North Korea describe him as an eloquent and tireless orator, primarily to military units that form the base of his support.
He is said to be a movie fan who owns about 20,000 foreign films. He reportedly has produced several films himself, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge.
He also founded a film school in Pyongyang that has become a routine tourist stop. Officials at the Korean Feature Film Studio have boasted in the past that Kim has visited about 600 times “to guide the movie-making.”
“Kim Jong Il watches every single film made in North Korea,” Kim Hae Young, a North Korean actress who defected to the South, said in 2000.
Old suspicions in the West
The West’s demonic image of Kim is based in part on suspicions he masterminded a 1983 terrorist bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 high-ranking South Korean officials and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed all 115 people aboard.
Biographical data on Kim is extremely sketchy. He is short and pudgy at 5-foot-3 and 187 pounds, and wears platform shoes and a bouffant hairstyle to appear taller.
South Koreans who have met him in past years described him as a heavy drinker, who could down a mug of cognac in a gulp.
He was Kim Il Sung’s eldest son by his late first wife, Kim Jung Sook. North Korea says he was born Feb. 16, 1942, in a “secret camp” at Mount Paekdu on the North Korea-China border when his father was supposedly a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. Western officials say he was born in the Soviet Union.
Kim’s public appearances have almost quadrupled since he succeeded his late father. He made 131 public appearances last year, mostly connected with the military, compared with 35 appearances in 1995, the year after taking power.