Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Kim Jong Il, the tyrant with a passion for wine, women and the bomb

On his specially fitted Japanese-built train, with its 21 carriages, lobster tanks and two armoured Mercedes cars, North Korea's "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il, likes to quaff bottles of vintage Bordeaux wine, which he has taken to drinking since doctors made him give up Hennessy cognac, as he ponders his country's nuclear future.

Just 158cm tall, and wearing 10cm platform shoes, Mr Kim fits perfectly the classic image of a ruthless megalomaniac dictator, with his trademark khaki jumpsuit and outsized sunglasses beneath an Elvis Presley-like bouffant hairstyle.

His public persona is undeniably eccentric and weird, but Kim is a cunning strategist, head of the world's fifth-largest military, the 1.1 million-strong People's Army and a brutal political player able to force the international community sit up and take notice of him and his country.

If the nuclear test was a cry for attention, it has worked. Since he came to power, intelligence experts and have been scratching their heads trying to work out whether Kim is mad, bad or both. "I don't think he's crazy," said the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who met him in 2000. She said he was well-informed, not delusional and "very much on top of his brief".

The leader of the world's only communist dynasty, Mr Kim has governed his desperately poor country with an iron fist since the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader" and founder of the secretive Stalinist enclave.

The eldest son by his first wife, Kim Jung Sook, he was born in Siberia on 16 February 1942, where his father had taken refuge with a guerrilla group escaping the Japanese. Well, that is how it runs in the Western version of events.

Father and son carefully cultivated a quasi-religious dimension to the cult of personality underlying the family regime. In the official North Korean hagiography, Kim was born in a humble log cabin in a secret camp on Mount Paekdu, a sacred site for Koreans, because legend has it that this was where the country was founded 4,000 years ago. When he was born, a star is said to have risen above the mountain and shone brightly, a double rainbow appeared and spring broke out spontaneously.

The state-run media praises him as a brilliant general, the "Lodestar of the 21st Century". His political writings and philosophy are reported and broadcast every day and he has written scores of books telling "all the truths of the world". He wrote six operas in two years, and also found time to design the Juche tower in Pyongyang.

The nuclear test marked a major step in the Kim Il Jong's bid to step out of the Great Leader's shadow. He is head of state, but the title president has been assigned "eternally" to Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994. He is the general secretary of the Workers' Party and chairman of the National Defence Commission.

He is thought to use at least two lookalikes, who have had plastic surgery and have been trained to speak and act like Kim. They fill in for him at lower-profile official events to reduce the chances of terrorist attacks.

Like Adolf Hitler, who supposedly loved Disney movies, Kim is fascinated by cinema and has collected 20,000 foreign films. Daffy Duck and horror movies are among his favourites, as are James Bond films, though he was said to have been furious at the way North Korea was depicted as a basket-case evil state in Die Another Day in 2002. He has also produced several films himself, mostly ideologically driven historical epics.

A Russian envoy, Konstantin Pulikovsky, travelled with Kim, who has a phobia about flying, on the famous train in 2001 on a trip to Moscow and said roast donkey was flown fresh to the train every day and the leader ate with silver chopsticks. He said they drank champagne with a bevy of young women of the "utmost beauty and intelligence".

There are stories that Kim has every grain of rice he eats personally inspected (any slight flaw and it is discarded); that blonde Swedish prostitutes are flown in to Pyongyang to satisy his lusts and that he injects himself with the blood of virgins to stay young. The paranoid playboy image is born out by the cognac-maker Hennessy who said he spent between £350,000 and £430,000 a year on VSOP from 1989 till 1999.

Biographical details about Kim are sketchy because he rarely appears in public and his voice is seldom broadcast. Many of the most reliable first-hand reports come from senior North Korean defectors. They say he has a genius for terrorism and is personally behind many of his country's most outrageous violence. Western intelligence officials suspect he masterminded a 1983 terrorist blast in Myanmar that killed 17 South Korean officials, and was behind the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed all 115 people on board.

Although he was designated successor in 1980, Kim Jong Il did not immediately accede after his father's death. But he has never lacked determination, and he eventually became head of the Korean Workers' Party in 1997.

Transforming North Korea into a nuclear power has been a key part of his efforts to become popular and he has doggedly pursued the weapons programme throughout his rule. In 1994, famine hit the country and it teetered on the brink economic collapse, so international nuclear monitors were permitted to enter North Korea in exchange for huge food and oil shipments from the US. Aid agencies reckon that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of food shortages caused by natural disasters and desperate handling of the economy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea has had to turn to China for support and it relies heavily on foreign aid to feed millions of its people.

Kim's obsession with nuclear weapons has sharpened since the US-led invasion of Iraq and President George Bush's inclusion of North Korea as one of the rogue states in his "axis of evil". Kim believes only nuclear weapons will prevent Washington from deposing him by force.