WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- He is a ruthless, calculating totalitarian tyrant who has calmly presided over the avoidable deaths of millions of his subjects. Today, he may command a nuclear arsenal that he may not hesitate to use against the United States and its allies within range of his missiles. And his name isn't Saddam Hussein.
Kim Jong Il, the reclusive leader of North Korea now playing nuclear poker with President George W. Bush, is still almost universally regarded in the West as an enigma around whom speculations swirl.
He is, it has been suggested, ineffectual, lazy, stupid, a playboy or an empty figurehead -- or all of the above.
But according to well-placed East Asian intelligence sources, none of the above is true -- although the playboy image once was.
Today, as he confronts the United States, many of these experts believe that Kim is very far from a figurehead indeed. They see him instead as an intelligent, ruthless, increasingly experienced and effective leader who is a driving force behind his impoverished country's effort to develop strategic nuclear weapons and the missile systems to carry them.
Far from being a figurehead, these sources have told United Press International, Kim was already the effective ruler of his sealed, isolationist nation of 23 million people for well over a decade before the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the harsh communist state's founding father.
At that time, the then-rulers of neighboring South Korea were hopeful that Kim Il Sung's bizarre cult of personality-centered, hard-line communist regime would rapidly disintegrate and collapse following his death. And, indeed, even though that never happened, speculation abounded for years thereafter in South Korea and elsewhere that Kim Jong Il was inadequate to fill his legendary father's shoes.
But the truth, these East Asian intelligence sources said, could not have been more different.
Kim Jong Il had been the effective ruler of North Korea on behalf of his aged and ailing father ever since the early 1980s, these sources said. And he had been all along the main driving force in his government's monomaniacal attempts to develop nuclear capabilities and the intercontinental ballistic missile systems to carry them.
Similarly, these sources said, it had been Kim Jong Il, not his father, who appeared to have been the driving force in the North Korean terrorist operation that wiped out much of South Korea's governing Cabinet when they were visiting Burma, now known as Myanmar in 1983.
But the outrage and increased pressure that followed this and other early terrorist operations appeared to have taught Kim Jong Il prudence and caution, some of these intelligence sources said.
When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, there was never the slightest likelihood of the North Korean government being shaken by instability or toppled in the transition period because there was no transition period at all. He had been in effective control for well over a decade already, these sources said.
Indeed, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his "Sunshine" policy of cautious détente with the North, believed the previous Seoul government ruined an earlier opportunity for effective détente with Kim Jong Il years before.
Insiders to the South Kim's policymaking circle have told UPI that President Kim Dae-jung and his top advisers believed North Korea's Kim was alarmed by the wild and over-enthusiastic talk about imminent reunification that had previously emanated from official circles in Seoul. They believe North Korea's Kim then abandoned his earlier cautious moves towards improving relations to gain economic aid. And as a result, at least 2 million people in North Korea died over the last few years in an appalling systemic famine.
Consistent with this analysis, the former South Korean president and his advisers looked with alarm at the confident, confrontational rhetoric that Bush used unilaterally against North Korea during his first two years in office, the East Asian sources said.
Some 11 months ago, Bush included North Korea in an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq in his 2002 State of the Union speech. And on a visit to South Korea, he visited the 38th Parallel demilitarized zone and in a deliberate echo of President Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, he called on the North's leaders to "tear down this DMZ." So far, Kim Jong Il has not complied with his demand.
The East Asian intelligence sources said that while Kim Jong Il remains determined to maintain North Korean independence and its tough, centralized communist system, he is -- as far his upbringing and extraordinarily insular life experience permit -- a realist and a pragmatist.
The North Korean leader recognizes that his country is in dire economic straits and is prepared to negotiate business and diplomatic deals with South Korea, Japan, the United States and other nations to lessen his country's isolation, these sources said. He knows he needs such relations to get the aid and investment he realizes his nation desperately needs, they said.
But he is determined to diversify these contacts so that he does not become too dependent on any one country, especially not South Korea or the United States, these sources said.
Despite the catastrophic famine that killed an estimated 2 million -- or almost one-tenth of the population -- over the past few years, Kim Jong Il's leadership remains secure and there are no significant domestic political threats to him, the East Asian sources said. But North Korea's reclusive leader remains suspicious and alert to prevent himself becoming isolated in the country's communist political hierarchy, they said.
Overall, the East Asian intelligence sources painted a picture of Kim Jong Il that described him as not physically prepossessing but as alert, intelligent and experienced, though prone to make unexpected initiatives or reversals of statements he had said before. He was most dangerous, they said, when he felt he was being pushed into a corner. Then his virtually total lack of experience or understanding of the wider world beyond North Korea's iron-clad borders could lead him into launching reckless, extreme actions that could have potentially catastrophic consequences.
That, some of the East Asian sources said, was why Kim Dae-jung and his associates believed their "Sunshine" relationship with North Korea was so important. And it was why, over the last year, they have been watching escalating U.S. rhetoric toward North Korea with increasing alarm.
Now, Kim Jong Il is defying the United States over his nuclear development program in direct, public ways that even Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has never dared to do. And he has shown a ruthlessness in maintaining his own power as literally millions of his people died under his rule that Saddam as yet cannot match.
President Kim Dae-jung believed in dealing as carefully with North Korea as you would with a deadly unexploded bomb with a highly complicated and delicate detonating device. The Bush administration made no secret of its contempt for such cautious and careful policies.
Now the former South Korean president and his advisers may have the last laugh after all. Except that it is no laughing matter.