SEOUL - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has faced international isolation, sanctions and scorn for his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But none of it deterred the man, known simply to his subjects as "Dear Leader", from going ahead on Monday with what Pyongyang said was its first nuclear test.

The communist world's first dynastic leader, the 64-year-old Kim is the unchallenged head of the reclusive state whose economy has fallen deeper into poverty during his nine years in power.

Analysts say the latest announcement of a test will bolster him in the eyes of his 1.2 million strong army, mostly based near the border with South Korea and which regularly celebrates his rule with elaborate parades and displays of weaponry.

His image outside the country is of a chubby man with a bouffant hair-do, drab jumpsuits and platform shoes who has starved his people, let the country's industry stagnate and, like his father, constructed a cult of personality around him.

"North Koreans are compelled to believe the earth is flat if their leader says so," said Park Young-ho, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Long groomed by his father, state founder Kim Il-sung, he gradually tightened his hold on power after the elder Kim died of a heart attack in 1994 in the midst of an earlier crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme.

The younger Kim declined to assume the title of president, instead designating his father "eternal president" and opting to rule as chairman of the National Defence Commission and head of the ruling party.

"His relation with the military is very strong because he has been focused on it since the start," said Michael Breen, Seoul-based consultant and author of Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader.

Kim has been playing a cagey, defiant and sometimes deadly game with the international community for years.

He is the man intelligence experts say ordered the 1983 bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 top South Korean officials, and the mid-air destruction of a Korean Air jetliner in 1987 that killed 115.

He emerged onto the world stage in 2000, hosting an unprecedented summit with then South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, meant to eventually end the more than 50-year divide of the Korean peninsula.

One of the world's most closed societies finally looked ready to open up.

But in just two years, tensions rose again after Washington said Pyongyang was pursuing a nuclear arms programme in violation of a 1994 agreement designed to freeze its atomic ambitions.

Now, the Bush administration says Kim leads an outpost of tyranny and labels his country part of an "axis of evil".

But in North Korea's official media Kim is one of the greatest leaders in history.

He is, it is said, a man who pilots jet fighters -- even though he always travels by land for his infrequent trips abroad.

He has also penned operas, produced movies and accomplished a feat unmatched in the annals of professional golf, shooting 11 holes-in-one on the first round he ever played.

On Sunday, marking his ninth anniversary at the helm of the Stalinist North, the official media described him as a man of outstanding wisdom and extraordinary political ability.

"The world admires the absolute power and greatness of our dear leader," the communist party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary.