Kim Jong Un: Lunatic or strategist?

SEOUL - Soon after the death of Mr Kim Jong Il, the hermit-like dictator who led North Korea from 1994 to 2011, a documentary ran on North Korean state television.

It included previously unseen footage that showed him standing beside his son Kim Jong Un, saying: "This guy's got guts!"

Yet the younger Kim may not even have been first in line to take over as North Korea's leader, according to the South Korean magazine SiSa-in.

In an investigative piece on the Kim dynasty published last week, it said Mr Kim Jong Il originally wanted his daughter Kim Sol Song to take his place.

That changed when hardline conservative president Lee Myung Bak of South Korea took office in 2008. Mr Kim decided to anoint his son instead, feeling that the latter was better suited to face down Mr Lee.

Although Mr Kim Jong Un inherited the dictatorship when he was only 27 or so - his exact age is not public knowledge - he has displayed confidence that belies his years.

He appears to have cast aside the trappings of his international experience at an exclusive Swiss school. He has modelled himself - at least from the looks of his hairstyle and attire - on his late grandfather, Mr Kim Il Sung, the anti-Japanese guerilla leader who founded the state and launched the Korean War.

Since assuming all key leadership titles following his father's death in December 2011, the "Young Marshal" has overseen a ballistic missile test which failed, a second missile test which shocked the world by succeeding, and a third nuclear test.

Following global condemnation, and increasing North Korea's customary displeasure with annual South Korea-United States military drills, Mr Kim has unleashed a series of verbal threats designed to raise tensions. In both its vitriol and machine-gun frequency, his rhetoric has outstripped anything his predecessors ever said.

On the other hand, his grandfather launched the Korean War and raids, border clashes and terrorist attacks, and his father oversaw naval clashes and artillery attacks on the South. But so far, Mr Kim has not launched a single attack.

This suggests that careful consideration has gone into his approach; he has shown no hint of a self-destructive nature.

"Kim was educated by top generals from 2002 at Kim Il Sung Military University," said Dr Kim Sun Hak, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Hanyang University.

"Kim Il Sung was a guerilla leader, and guerillas are hit-and-run; when cornered, they stay down."

"Of course, you have to be prepared to die for your country, but there is no mention of suicide missions in North Korea's military ideology."

As Pyongyang becomes weaker and weaker in an Asia that has left it far behind, experts say Mr Kim is playing the only hand he has. Economically, his state is decrepit, politically it is outmoded, diplomatically it is a pariah, but militarily it remains formidable.

In this, Mr Kim is simply continuing the long tradition of brinkmanship that has granted North Korea a voice in world affairs.

"Kim Il Sung reversed the whole Korean history of kowtowing to big powers; he started by playing off China and Russia against each other in the late 1950s to get aid," said Mr Michael Breen, a biographer of Mr Kim Jong Il.

"Kim Jong Un is carrying this on: He is the leader of a small, poor country that's defying all the major powers. With what? Rhetoric and threats. This is very, very clever."

The current round of atomic poker dates back to 1994. Then, under the "Agreed Framework", Pyongyang agreed to halt its plutonium-based nuclear reactor in exchange for fuel aid and a light water reactor built by the international community.

That fell through - as have all subsequent deals and negotiations. In this dangerous game, Mr Kim apparently has received good advice. According to Hanyang University's Dr Kim, he chairs regular inter-agency meetings of top officials.

"Kim makes final decisions, but he listens to recommendations," Dr Kim said. "He is not doing all this on a whim. He is a rational guy."

Meanwhile, the world waits nervously to see what the "Young Marshal" will do on one of the most important dates on his country's calendar next week. April 15 is the birthday of his illustrious grandfather - and the day some expect Mr Kim to unveil the grand finale of his current show of threat mongering.

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