He is surely the weirdest leader in the world. The jumpsuit he wears in public camouflages a life of luxury in a nation bordering on starvation. He works in an impenetrable shadow of secrecy: we know almost nothing about what he does or how he does it. His country is the ultimate Big Brother nightmare, a cold war creation of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, the staunch Korean nationalist-communist, with the approval and support of Beijing. When the elder Kim died in 1994, North Korea was bequeathed to his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, who maintains a rogue state because — let's face it — he is a born rogue.
This year, the younger Kim stepped from the shadows to host a chummy summit in Pyongyang, his Twilight Zone-capital, with Kim Dae Jung, President of the other half of Korea — the part that is democratic, economically vibrant and very much a part of the real world. The meeting was the fruition of South Korea Kim's 1998 "Sunshine Policy," an attempt to engage North Korea and woo it from its dangerously neurotic isolation. For playing Prince Charming, Kim Dae Jung won this year's Nobel Peace Prize — but it was Kim Jong Il, Nosferatu-turned-Cinderella, who made the most amazing news in Asia this year. Four months after the summit, Kim allowed a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the Americans found him to be serious and authoritative in discussing critical issues like North Korea's long-range missile program, which the U.S. wants to curtail. Afterward, Kim reverted to his customarily weird braggadocio. North Korean newspapers reported: "The Beloved Leader does not ever have to travel anywhere. Instead, Americans, Chinese, Russians, Japanese and others rush to Pyongyang to meet the Beloved Leader and to accommodate North Korea."
Neither the north nor the south sees the rapprochement as a speedy road to reunifying a peninsula sundered for half a century. Seoul knows it can't afford to absorb the poverty-stricken north for now. Kim Jong Il's game is to score enough foreign aid to keep his regime afloat. He also tends toward extortion. In 1994, Kim agreed to freeze his nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid from the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Now Washington is trying to persuade him to give up his long-range missile program and to stop selling the technology he has already developed.
The fact that Kim can deal rationally belies decades of propaganda portraying him as a dissolute wacko with a penchant for pornography. Much of that came from Seoul, and Kim Dae Jung recently ordered his government to "revise" its public portrayal of the Dear Leader, who at home is increasingly being referred to as the Great Leader. According to Hwang Jang Yop, Kim's former mentor and the biggest heavyweight to have defected from North Korea, Kim is a clever man with a ruthless talent for staying on top — so much so that his late father was scared he might violently dispose of his three stepsiblings. Not a nice man to be around, perhaps, but this was the year we got to know Kim Jong Il a little better.
— Reported by Massimo Calabresi / Washington, Stella Kim / Seoul and Donald Macintyre / Tokyo