Kim Jong Il has astutely nullified a dawning realization among his people that the world beyond North Korea's borders is a better place.
He's even created a new image for himself at home - not as a towering patriarch - but as a figure of sympathy, a beleaguered, America-taunted leader who eats soldier's gruel and deserves care by the masses. He's played a smart propaganda game in South Korea, where some elites admire him as a nationalist torchbearer for "true Korean-ness," and for outwitting the great powers.
Kim reportedly micromanages the entire country. North Korea has the world's fifth-largest army. His state is a hermetically sealed cult that allows no debate; even top generals and their extended families undergo loyalty tests. A half-dozen concentration camps hold 200,000 inmates, a dozen intelligence units spy on the people and each other.
One side of Kim only now emerging is how closely he stays in touch with the people. The Dear Leader is on the road, working the crowds, a great deal. Studies of Korean media show Kim averages about 150 local visits a year. He may not make live televised speeches, but he's at a school, a factory, a farm, a military base - every three days. (He shows up at a military unit once a week.) This suggests a populist streak.
"When someone you worship comes to your factory, it's a personal connection. We tend to overlook this simple fact," says Alexander Mansourov of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. who has tracked Kim's appearances. "Kim knows the local leaders, the opinion makers, the local cadres. He's not in a fishbowl. He may be a dictator, but he's also a populist."
Kim also appears today to be intensifying his ethnic nationalist message: Korea is different, special, unique, pure - and must remain so.
[Excerpt of an article by Robert Marquand, The Christian Science Monitor]