SEOUL, South Korea – His South Korean counterpart praised him as "a man of insight." Madeleine Albright had "a logical and pragmatic discussion with him." It was quite a turnaround for a man long vilified as a terrorist, a kidnapper and a crackpot.
But now the pendulum is swinging back for Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea — back to the image of international villain bent on making nuclear weapons.
In 1993 his father and president, Kim Il Sung, confronted the world with the first threats to go nuclear. That crisis passed and the elder Kim died, but now his 60-year-old son has re-ignited the fuse with moves to develop nuclear weapons in violation of international agreements.
Only 2 1/2 years ago, he held a historic summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, heralding a new era for the divided Korean peninsula. The secretive communist state was, it seemed, finally opening up. Now he has expelled U.N. monitors and threatens to quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which confines nuclear weapons to the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China.
Kim Jong Il has a long history of alleged involvement in kidnapping and terrorism.
In 1983, after a bomb killed 17 senior South Korean officials visiting Myanmar, a captured North Korean agent said the mission was sanctioned by Kim Jong Il.
In 1987, a North Korean agent was arrested getting off a South Korean airliner. She publicly testified that she put two time bombs on the plane on Kim's orders.
The incident put North Korea on the U.S. State of Department list of countries sponsoring terrorism, along with Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria.
Kim is also a movie buff of sinister proportions. In 1978, a famous South Korean movie director and his actress wife were abducted to North Korea. The couple fled back to the West eight years later and quoted Kim Jong Il as telling them that he personally ordered their kidnappings so they could help develop the North's film industry.
In September, Kim confessed to visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that his country had kidnapped about a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train communist spies in Japanese language and culture.
North Korea's official party apparatus under Kim's direct control is also widely alleged to be involved in trafficking drugs, particularly methamphetamines, into Japan.
Kim's image dramatically improved after the 2000 summit. A few months later, Albright, then secretary of state, visited Pyongyang and said later that Kim was "not the kind of peculiar person" he had been made out to be.
Kim charmed his guests with eloquence and humor and proved that he was on top of world affairs.
But still, little personal detail about him is reliably known beyond his height (5 feet 3), weight (187 pounds) and hairdo (exaggerated pompadour).
He is said to be a movie fan who owns a collection of 20,000 foreign films. He reportedly has produced several films himself, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge.
Even his birthplace is disputed, North Korea says he was born on Feb. 16, 1942, in a "secret camp" at Mount Paekdu on the North Korea-China border when his father was supposedly a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. Western officials say he was born in the Soviet Union.
Father-and-son portraits hang in every home and building, and the two Kims' writings and philosophy are published and broadcast daily.
Kim the younger, groomed to succeed his father since the 1970s, is now lionized by North Korea's rigidly controlled media for turning the country into an "ideological and military power."
But for the past seven years, it has needed foreign help to feed its 22 million people. Food shortages are blamed for the deaths of more than 2 million North Koreans.
In December the United States and its allies cut off oil supplies as punishment for North Korea's nuclear program, and North Koreans are enduring the coldest winter in many years.
Factories are reported to be operating at under 30 percent capacity, power cuts are frequent and widespread, yet the country is thought to have one or two atomic bombs, and has test-fired a ballistic missile over Japan.