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Friendless Kim pins his hopes on nuclear card: The 81-year-old Great Leader of North Korea, besieged but defiant, is using his only effective ploy in a game of brinkmanship, says Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

KIM IL SUNG is lonely. The 81-year-old 'Great Leader', who has ruled unchallenged for nearly half a century over North Korea, now finds himself besieged on all sides, one of the new bogeymen in the post-Cold War world. And the more the world gangs up on him, the more cornered and desperate he feels.

He may not be entirely without friends: in the past few weeks, according to Pyongyang government radio, he has received delegations from the Nepalese Communist Party and the Paraguay Revolutionary Party. And as Asia's longest-lasting head of state he took time to send a message of congratulations to Benazir Bhutto on her election as Prime Minister in Pakistan.

But from the US and its allies in Asia and Europe, Kim Il Sung suffers the same degree of animosity and vilification as the Serb militias in Bosnia, the warlords in Somalia and the Haitian military. The American imperialists and their lackeys have dubbed him 'mad', 'dangerously unpredictable', 'a pariah' and 'the last Stalinist'. His country does not have diplomatic relations with Washington, Tokyo or London. Even his former friends, Russia and China, have stopped their aid to Pyongyang, and now have diplomatic relations with Seoul.

Kim Il Sung maintains, however, one distinction: he has 'the Bomb', or is very close to acquiring it. For that reason the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans are forced to talk to him.

How far North Korea's nuclear weapons development has progressed is unclear. But as Bill Clinton, the United States President, emphasised in a television interview on Sunday, nuclear proliferation is the last thing the US wants to see now the Cold War is over. 'North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb,' Mr Clinton declared, adding that an attack on South Korea would be considered as an attack on the US.

Kim Il Sung is aware of the concerns in the West about his nuclear programme, which he continues to shield from international inspectors despite obligations to allow them in under the country's membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And he knows that his arms dealings with Iran and other Middle East nations are further causes for alarm, particularly to Israel. But he has no other cards to play.

The nuclear card is a powerful one. The IAEA is increasingly concerned that North Korea's refusal to admit its inspectors is making a mockery of the agency. Last week the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on North Korea to open its nuclear facilities. The US and South Korea have threatened to call for economic sanctions through the UN Security Council.

But Kim Il Sung thinks he can rely on China to head off the threat of sanctions. And meanwhile his diplomats are continuing secret talks with the Americans through the North Korean delegation at the UN in New York. In exchange for allowing international inspectors into the Yongbyon nuclear complex, Kim Il Sung wants a high price: diplomatic relations with the US and Japan, an end to the annual Team Spirit military exercises between South Korea and the US that his army always fears is going to turn into a real invasion and economic assistance for his shrivelling economy.

Most of all he wants it done in a way that does not cause him to lose face and which will one day permit his son, Kim Jong Il - the 'Dear Leader' - to succeed him. For most of his adult life Kim senior has preached the virtues of the North Korean socialist system of juche, or self-reliance, which was to create a workers' paradise on earth. In fact it has ended up in an economic shambles, with food shortages, idle factories and yearly declines in national output. Huge labour camps hold tens of thousands of political prisoners, state censorship ensures news does not seep in from abroad (North Koreans have still not been told that US astronauts have landed on the moon) and the dream of a workers' paradise is in tatters.

Kim Il Sung knows that all is not well at home, but to admit this openly to the world is another matter. Rather than suffer the humiliation of begging for Western credits as the disintegrating states of Eastern Europe have been forced to do, the Great Leader would like to be treated as an equal. Which means holding on to the nuclear card as long as possible.

He does not fear pre-emptive military strikes from the US air force: his military chiefs have assured him that all the important nuclear laboratories, along with many tanks, planes and missile silos, are safely buried in tunnels deep underneath the country's many mountains. And he knows Japan and South Korea are against strong-arm tactics. Seoul fears a military backlash from North Korea's 1.1 million-strong army across the demilitarised zone that separates the peninsula.

Tokyo does not want any further destabilisation on its doorstep. Les Aspin, the US Defense Secretary, discovered as much on his tour of the region last week.

So, despite the occasional sabre-rattling of defence hawks in the US, Kim Il Sung knows that as long as he keeps his nuclear card close to his chest his enemies must keep talking to him. The Americans have even offered to help him develop light-water nuclear reactors to take the place of the reactors he is now building, which would produce plutonium, the raw ingredient for nuclear weapons. Kim Il Sung may not have any real friends. But with his undisclosed nuclear card, he doesn't need any.

Leading article, page 17

(Photograph omitted)