Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader by Michael Breen John Wiley and Sons $220 He may be the world's most dangerous man, but little credible information exists about Kim Jong-il, North Korea's 'Dear Leader'. Is he a politician or a playboy? A masterly gambler who has leveraged a weak hand to the hilt, or a catastrophic leader who has overseen his nation's ruination? Given the importance of such questions to Asia's security, Michael Breen's book is timely. The Seoul-based author of The Koreans, Breen presents not just a compelling biography of Kim, but also a portrait of his secretive country, the modern Hermit Kingdom. This is a lively book compared with the dull, academic discourse characteristic of much writing on the Koreas. Breen - who has travelled to Pyongyang as a journalist and consultant, and even dined with Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, 'The Great Leader' - has an eye for the bizarre. He also gleefully records the japes he and his chums engaged in up North. Suspecting the mirror in his Pyongyang hotel is a spying device, a colleague, while ostentatiously praising the North's leadership, bares his buttocks at the glass. Balancing these breezy accounts are grim passages. The author doesn't overlook the plight of the 22 million unfortunates who populate Kim's kingdom. The chapter on the North Korean gulag details torture, forced starvation, and the punishment of generations of a family for the 'crimes' of one member. The disastrous famines of the 1990s are also covered. Although Breen predicts 'Unified Korea will be an expanded South Korea', liberals in the South and elsewhere still defend the North. This tendency doesn't extend to those who have visited. 'You can meet foreign consultants who talk about investment opportunities, aid workers who say officials are doing their best, and experts who think that Kim Jong-il will come up with reforms,' writes Breen. 'But scratch the surface, and they all think the place is vile. That is quite a remarkable consensus.' What, then, of Kim? Breen uses psychological profiles and statements from defectors and family to piece together his inner man. Kim is neither a madman, nor evil per se, Breen says. He's an artist at heart - reflected in his enthusiastic patronage of the arts, his huge film collection and his kidnapping of a South Korean director and actress in the 1970s. What is 'insane and evil', is the rigid system maintaining him. Some of the book's most revealing anecdotes indicate Kim's awareness of this. Even so, Breen can't conceal his distaste for Kim, a gourmand he dubs 'the only fat man in the country'. Regarding policy, Breen says the US should offer the North a non-aggression treaty as a carrot while using a stick to crack down on Kim's shadowy 'Division 39'. This organisation allegedly supplies the dictator - through money laundering, drug running and other activities - with the hard currency to buy the continuing favour of Pyongyang's elite. This isn't the definitive biography of Kim. That must wait until the bamboo curtain has fallen - meaning, in all probability, after Kim is dead or removed from power. But if the reader concedes that what is known about Kim is inevitably subject to speculation, this book is an important work. Andrew Salmon is the author of American Business and the Korean Miracle: US Enterprises in Korea, 1866 - the Present.