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Mysterious leader of the hermit state

By Peter Walker for CNN
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(CNN) -- North Korea is notable in the modern world for a number of reasons. It is perhaps the planet's most repressive regime, certainly its most secretive, and its most heavily militarized. Oh yes, and it might soon become the latest to test nuclear weapons.

In a terse announcement on Monday, North Korea's official news agency said that due to the "extreme threat" from the United States the country would conduct a nuclear test, not specifying a date.

Whatever the wider arguments about nuclear proliferation, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the world is a safer place with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Why? Simply because the country officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-Il, are so secretive and unpredictable.

For example, no one outside the country even knows for sure whether North Korea has a nuclear weapon, or is simply engaged in a massive game of bluff with the wider world. Experts suspect North Korea has a handful of warheads, but only a test would confirm this.

At the center of this mystery stands the diminutive, bouffant-haired figure of Kim, all 5ft 3in (1.60m) of him, slightly more in the stack heels he reputedly favors, who inherited sole rule of the hermetic Stalinist state when his father, Kim Il-Sung, died in 1994.

Who is the man in the trademark tunic-style jacket and owlish glasses? To outsiders, even the basic facts of his life are an impenetrable mixture of myth and reality.

According to official biographies, Kim was born at Mount Paektu, a sacred Korean site, in 1942, an event supposedly marked by a double rainbow and a new star in the night sky.

The reality is that Kim was born a year earlier in Siberia, where his father commanded a brigade of exiled Koreans. North Korea did not itself exist until seven years later, when the Korean peninsula was split in two by the Soviets and Americans.

At times, the younger Kim can seem a ridiculous figure, especially given the ludicrous stories in North Korea's state-run media. One famously recounted Kim's first and only round of golf -- supposedly including 11 holes in one.

But for many of North Korea's 23 million people it is no joke.

Millions are thought to have died during a terrible famine in the 1990s, caused in part by gross economic mismanagement and the divergence of resources to the military. Thousands of others languish in prison camps. Torture and ill-treatment is "widespread," according to Amnesty International.

Much of what is known comes from exiles. North Korea is defiantly solitary, run on a principle known as "Juche", a home-grown brand of Stalinism emphasizing national self-reliance.

A small number of foreign journalists have been allowed into North Korea in recent years, witnessing a bleak society with little apparent economic activity, centered mainly around a slavish worship of the two Kims.

This personality cult is mixed with constant denunciations of the West, particularly the "imperialist" United States.

So, if North Korea has nuclear weapons, what will it do with them? No one knows.

One hopeful sign is that the few outsiders who have met Kim Jong-Il report he is informed and seemingly rational.

In late 2000, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to North Korea during what turned out to be a fairly brief thaw in relations and held lengthy talks with Kim.

"He listened very carefully," Albright said later. "He didn't lecture me. I went through all my talking points with him. And he gave rational answers. And he seems pragmatic."

Kim also shares something else with millions of Americans -- a love of the NBA. So much so, indeed, that Albright presented the delighted Kim with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.

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