North Korean leader Kim Jong Il over the last three years has been gradually opening up to the world through occasional diplomatic ventures and dialogue, peeling back the layers of his mysterious persona.

In his latest move, the 60-year-old leader agreed to receive Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for a one-day visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday, marking the first-ever trip to North Korea by a Japanese prime minister. It is also the first summit between the leaders of the two countries, which have never had diplomatic ties.

The eldest son of the late North Korean supreme leader Kim Il Sung, Kim stepped into the spotlight in June 2000 when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung flew to the North Korean capital for a historic inter-Korean summit.

Speaking in front of the assembled media, Kim told Kim Dae Jung that Western countries had reported the dictator as having been “liberated from seclusion, thanks to President Kim (Dae Jung).”

Smiling broadly, Kim joked that he was considered a “hermit” internationally despite having made trips to China, Indonesia and many other countries.

He visited China in May 2000 and January 2001, and traveled to Russia in summer 2001 and in August this year.

Among the foreign dignitaries he has received as guests are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Kim was elected leader of North Korea by the legislature in September 1998, more than four years after the death of his father in July 1994.

While state literature proclaims he was born somewhere on Mount Paektu on the North Korean border with China, there are reports his birthplace was in the Far East region of the Soviet Union.

His official title is chairman of the National Defense Commission, which became the nation’s top post after the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly revised the constitution to abolish the presidency that had been held by Kim Il Sung.

The NDC is North Korea’s top military organization.

He also holds the post of general secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea.

Kim became supreme commander of the Stalinist state’s armed forces in December 1991, and was named general secretary of the Workers Party of Korea in October 1997, after a three-year mourning period for his father apparently to keep abreast of world events.

Little is known of Kim’s personal life. There are reports he has had four wives and each of them bore him one child — two sons and two daughters.

He is also reportedly a film buff and loves surfing the Internet.

A man believed to be Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il, tried to enter Japan in May 2001 but was deported to China several days later after being detained by Japanese immigration authorities on suspicion of carrying a false passport.

‘Spy ship’ examined

KAGOSHIMA (Kyodo) The Japan Coast Guard on Tuesday began unloading parts taken from a suspected North Korean spy ship at a dock here, coast guard officials said.

Some of the items, including radar antennae from the bridge, were lifted Friday from the seabed where the ship went down in December in the East China Sea, the officials said.

The coast guard meanwhile continued safety checks on the ship’s hull, which has been placed in a water-filled tank on a barge anchored off the port since being raised last Wednesday.

Dangerous materials from the ship, including antiaircraft missiles and grenades, are being stored on a patrol vessel.

The 100-ton ship sank in China’s exclusive economic zone about 390 km off the island of Amami-Oshima on Dec. 22 after exchanging gunfire with coast guard patrol vessels.

Japan says the ship is a North Korean vessel that was apparently involved in espionage or drug running. North Korea denies the allegations.

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