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Kim Jong Il surrounded by myth

Kim Jong Il, the leader of communist North Korea, lives so secluded from the outside world and so surrounded by myth that it's difficult for outsiders to slice through the mysteries around him.

What's clear is that Kim holds iron-clad control over his one-party dictatorship and the lives of North Korea's 23 million people, who know him by such titles as the "brilliant commander" and the "Dear Leader."

He's also a movie buff who in 1978 went so far as to kidnap a South Korean movie director and actress to produce propaganda films in North Korea. He reportedly watches CNN. Ordinary North Koreans, by contrast, have no cable TV and very limited opportunities to tune in to the outside world.

Many stories circulate about Kim's playboy lifestyle. Some are from defectors and may be exaggerations to discredit him.

His image is also highly scripted by the regime. North Korea says he was born on Feb. 16, 1942, on Mount Paekdu, a place sacred in North Korean legend. Analysts say Kim was born in the Soviet Union, perhaps in 1941.

Kim was designated as the successor to his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, in 1980. He took power after his father died in 1994.

Industrialized North Korea has struggled to feed its people since it was threatened by famine in 1995. In the meantime, it maintains a "military first" policy, supporting the fourth-largest military in the world.

Most of its active forces are stationed within 40 miles of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. The North's million-man army and its estimated 13,000 hardened artillery sites make a military option for resolving the North Korea crisis highly unlikely.

North Korea announced in February 2005 that it possessed nuclear weapons. The government stresses that it is strengthening its "military deterrence," a reference to nuclear weapons, in response to what it calls hostile U.S. policies.

Kim is known to have visited the outside world only six times—and four of those visits were to China, where he tried hard to go incognito. On his last visit there, in January, he kept the shades drawn on his bulletproof train (he hates to fly) and asked China to keep its press muzzled.

South Korean and Western reporters got the story out anyway of how Kim toured the southern cities where China first opened its economy to outside investment in the 1980s. Was he there to learn about how to speed up limited economic reforms in his own country? He didn't say.

North Korea started experimenting with reforms in 2002, but they've been limited to dabbling in urban and rural markets. The economy is tightly controlled by the central government.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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