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CAMBRIDGE, England — When I was in Beijing the week before Christmas, the topic of North Korea came up several times in conversations with friends and colleagues. Several of them referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a madman. Kim’s state of mind is quite an important question at a time when North Korea is trying to gain, or add to, a nuclear weapons capability.

But I don’t think Kim is mad — quite the contrary. There is, of course, a twinge of madness about the “juche” political philosophy of self-reliance about which “Dear Leader” Kim writes so much (around 900 books and articles at last count). This is, however, not much different from the religious flummery that many, including U.S. leaders, surround themselves with.

If we examine Kim’s domestic and foreign policy over the last couple of years, the case for impeachment on grounds of madness doesn’t hold up well.

Hardly a month goes by without some new reform of domestic policy that introduces some liberalization of the Stalinist economic structure that Kim inherited from his father, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung. Of the 1,000 or so officials who have been sent abroad for training in recent years, almost all were sent to study Western economics.

It is not easy to turn a Stalinist economic system around — just ask the Chinese or Vietnamese. The rate of reform in North Korea is much faster than it was in those two countries in the early years of their reform programs.

Sure, the North Koreans have made mistakes, especially in farm policy, but who is going to throw the first stone on that one? They need help, not humiliation. They have asked for technical assistance on all aspects of economic policy. They are also asking for thousands of scholarships to send more people to the West for training. Thus domestic economic-reform policy shows no signs of madness.

What about foreign policy? Well, as Kim Jong Il himself has said, the whole world is focusing on him and the problems that his country is facing, so he must be getting something right.

U.S. President George W. Bush managed to get the leaders of Russia, China, Japan and South Korea to stand up with him in Mexico and say that it would be a good thing if the Korean Peninsula were to be a nuclear-free zone. Kim did better than that. In the past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have all indicated that they disagree strongly with using U.S. strategy to achieve that objective.

Over the past two years, Kim Jong Il has visited Beijing (twice) and Moscow. The leaders of Russia, South Korea and Japan have visited him in Pyongyang. Those leaders are now joining him in calling for negotiations — not threats — as the best way forward. They have all, in one way or another, criticized the U.S. strategy of “tailored containment.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Kim, strange bedfellows indeed, have done more than anyone else over the past few weeks to turn the United States back to a multilateralist foreign policy. They have forced the U.S. to confront the fact that it cannot run around the world imposing its will. They are now even talking about the need to bring the United Nations in on the Korean issue.

Where does the North Korean position come from? Why not start with the fact that most of North Korea’s leaders grew up under Japanese colonial rule — when control was exercised in its most brutal, inhuman form. Then go on to the fact that they were in their most formative years when the U.S. carpet-bombed their country, annihilating Pyongyang in the process, and, we are told, using biological and chemical weapons.

Think about how the U.S. role in the Cold War, in Vietnam and in Cambodia was perceived in Pyongyang as these leaders came to power. Think about the way the U.S. treats Cuba. Think about Grenada, Chile under elected President Salvador Allende, and Nicaragua.

More recently, think about how the U.S. threw the Palestinians to the wolves of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the leader of a state that has more violations of U.N. articles to its name than any other country.

Think about all of this and then decide what you would do if you were in charge of North Korean foreign policy. Can you still think of Kim as mad?

Would you give up your only bargaining chip before sitting down to negotiate with Bush and his nonelected cronies? What you would do is try to drive a big wedge between the U.S. and the states with more at stake, your neighbors. You would demonstrate the futility and unreasonableness of the U.S. position, leading to dissent within the U.S. itself. You would allow the world to see how the rich and powerful withdraw humanitarian assistance from innocent people without food or heat.

You would also do all you can to make the only bargaining chip you have seem bigger and more threatening than it is. Would that make you mad? No? Kim isn’t either, and he has done all of this.

You might not like him or his policies, but that does not mark him as much different from many other political leaders, including Bush. Bush recently welcomed as a house guest a dictator who has massacred his own people and maintains nuclear weapons targeted at allies of the U.S. and the U.S. itself; who brutally suppresses dissent; and whose record on human rights is no better than Kim’s: President Jiang of China.

What lesson would you draw from that if you were Kim?

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