Monday, June 29, 2009

Kim Jong-il boxed in, or just up to his old tricks?

At home he is idolized as a "great man with clairvoyant wisdom." Elsewhere, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il looks like a cornered man who has a dangerous infatuation with atomic bombs. Will he give up years of rhetorical war and launch the real thing? Or will he just give up -- to save himself and his exhausted economy? Neither is likely, according to diplomats, analysts and officials.

Kim's government is not so much feeling threatened as playing a well-practiced game of who-blinks-first, rolling out the nuclear threat to win another set of concessions from a world struggling to deal with a leader who has little else to bargain with.

Pyongyang's punishment for May's nuclear test includes the threat of renewed, and painful, exclusion from the global banking system and humiliating checks of its ships on the high seas for weapons -- its one major export.

Kim is unlikely to abandon years of bankrolling the military -- at the expense of the rest of the population -- to ensure its protection of him and, more recently, for his son to take over the family dynasty which began with Kim's father.The government's plan is to nurture the image of his son as heir apparent.

"What they are saying is 'leave us alone'," said Balbina Hwang, a Washington-based former aide to the U.S. chief negotiator with the reclusive North, referring to the risk-filled process of securing support to anoint third son Kim Jong-un. "They want the next year or two off."


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