Rogue Regime / By Jasper Becker

By Jasper Becker. Oxford University Press, 328 pp, $34.95, hardcover.

Jasper Becker believes we have much to fear from the rogue regime of North Korea and Kim Jong Il, the tubby little madman who runs it. Becker was based in Beijing for 11 years, has interviewed numerous escapees from North Korea, and has visited the country many times.

Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea is a grimly fascinating story of mass manipulation, deception, and murder. It opens with a fictionalized scenario of how the first hours of a war with North Korea might proceed. Clearly, Becker means to convince us that Kim Jong Il is ready, willing, and nearly able to use the bomb in order to hold the world hostage to his whims. And his whims are many, including Mercedes Benzes, cognac, and virgins, plus food, food, and more food. He also likes to hear the sound of gunfire, Becker notes, especially when it comes from firing squads eliminating people he doesn't like, such as the barber who messed up his bouffant hairdo. But he's not all bad. Once, hunting, he shot a pregnant deer and was so distraught that he sent it to a hospital, where the newborn was kept in an incubator alongside the human babies.

The Hermit Kingdom is not doing well. As Becker points out, the average adult male weighs 90 pounds, owing to famines that began in the 1980s and culminated in three million people dead in the mid '90s. Despite the influx of massive foreign aid, the country continues to starve, even as Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, digs more bunkers and tests more nerve gas on his own people.

Most disturbing is the question of how the Koreans can submit to such insanity, and, more broadly, how the rest of us can participate by watching from our remove. Kim Jong Il is now among the most powerful men on Earth, because of the nuclear threat he wields. Apparently, one should never underestimate the power of a short man who resembles a toad in a toupee.