Washington -- North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il is like a villain in one of the James Bond movies he loves: a megalomaniac with weird hair and quirky habits who is threatening the world with nukes.
A Chinese intelligence report even suggests he might have built a secret uranium-processing lair deep inside a hollowed-out mountain.
Kim, 60, the only Communist leader to inherit power, is less a political dictator than a cult leader with an entire country in his thrall. It is as if the 1978 Guyana massacre's Jim Jones was a head of state - with the world's fourth-largest army.
Portly and bespectacled, with a high voice and a complex about his 5-foot-3 stature, Kim wears lifts in his shoes and adds another inch or two with a permed pompadour.
It's very hard to know what is true about Kim. His pathological secretiveness encourages wild stories, and there are two levels of propaganda to wade through: his own and South Korea's.
"I have heard people categorically say he's a zombie, a hopeless drunk, an unpresentable psychopath - or the smartest, most competent person in the country," said Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
A new South Korean government attempting to improve relations lately has put the kibosh on wild propaganda, but intelligence sources have whispered for years about Kim's harems of Swedish models, his enormous appetite for booze and cigarettes, and his germ phobias. It was even said Kim received transfusions of virgins' blood to try to keep himself young.
Although a quarter of his 22 million drought-ravaged people are starving - reduced to eating gruel made from boiled grass - Kim is a gourmand who recently imported an Italian chef to make authentic pizza.
On a 2001 visit to Russia aboard a special armored train stocked with cases of French wine, Kim used silver chopsticks to scarf fresh lobster and roast donkey. He is Hennessy cognac's single-biggest customer, annually importing $750,000 worth of pricey aged brandy.
Such excesses amid grinding famine normally would ensure a swift overthrow, but Kim's hold on power is absolute.
North Koreans are kept in line by fear - school children are shown executions and critics end up in concentration camps - along with wall-to-wall propaganda and sheer superstition.
The cult of Kim demands that the populace venerate him and his father, Kim Il Sung, as deities. "I personally believed there was only one living god who was the leader of the country," defector Soon Ok Lee told Congress last year.
Kim's face beams from countless giant murals. Hymns to his greatness are piped through public address systems in the Pyongyang subway. Every adult must wear a lapel pin of his face near their hearts.
Kim's people are told his birth - commemorated each year with frenzied national rejoicing - took place on North Korea's highest mountain accompanied by rainbows. But he really was born in a Siberian guerrilla camp, where his father was fighting the Japanese before the USSR installed him as leader in 1945.
Kim was a child when his little brother drowned, and his mother died when he was 7. As a young man, he trained as a pilot in East Germany, where rumors of his playboy excesses led his father to call him home.
Kim was groomed to inherit power and became the exalted Dear Leader after his father's July 1994 death.
Kim is said to be married to Kim Young Sook, mother of his only daughter. He also has two sons by two other women.
Few foreigners are allowed into North Korea, and there is only one TV and radio station - ensuring that little information breaches the borders. But Kim watches CNN, surfs the Net and enjoys a library of 20,000 videos.
He particularly likes Rambo and James Bond, and anything with Elizabeth Taylor or Sean Connery, according to Shin Sang Ok, a South Korean filmmaker he held captive for eight years to make movies for him.
In 2000, Kim began reaching out to neighbors and offering rare concessions, but after President Bush called North Korea part of an "axis of evil," the Dear Leader announced he had been secretly working on a nuclear program all along.
Defectors say he is obsessed with war.
"Today in North Korea, there is no longer a self-supporting economy. All that remains is the military," said Hwang Jang Yop, the highest official ever to defect. "It is a grave historical lesson that the only way out for a military dictator who has increasingly strengthened the military is to provoke war."