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Rogues Are in Vogue as Kim Jong Il Is Forgiven

October 29, 2000|PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM | Philip J. Cunningham teaches at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok

The U.S. State Department long regarded North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a terrorist and dictator, but that view is out of date now thanks to a policy flip-flop by the U.S. secretary of State. In Bangkok this past July, Madeleine Albright gave a hint of things to come when she put on her black bowler hat during the Assn. of South East Asian Nations meeting to perform a cabaret number for fellow diplomats. "The former rogue," she sang, is "now in vogue!"

Kim Jong Il fever has infected Western diplomatic circles as European nations seek diplomatic recognition in droves while a lame-duck Bill Clinton appears bent on making a meeting with Kim the crowning achievement of his troubled presidency. In an ironic reversal of traditional diplomatic posturing, Thailand and Japan, oft criticized by the West for not being tough enough on human rights, are questioning Washington's eager courtship of North Korea on human rights grounds.

Jung Chang Hyun, author of a best-selling South Korean book about Kim, took a studiously neutral view of his subject long before the tyrant became a media icon.

Is Kim a tyrant and a killer like we used to think?

"Before 1967, there was clear evidence of northern cadre getting killed in various power struggles, but since then, almost nothing of the kind has happened in the past few decades that we can prove," Jung said.

What about the missile launch that so terrified Japan?

"That was a celebration of Kim's coming of age politically. North Koreans are proud of the launch of the Taepodong missile in 1998 and consider it a positive accomplishment, not a means of terrorizing Japan and other neighbors. It was a way of saying things are back on track again after a few rough years after the elder Kim's death."

Has Kim Jong Il changed?

"No, he hasn't." Jung is very firm on this point. What's changed are public perceptions of him as "black information" released by South Korea is replaced with firsthand accounts and television coverage.

There is an undeniable emotional side to how information from North Korea is processed, and anti-communist information specialists in South Korea were long responsible for setting the tone. Now that Kim Dae Jung has visited the North, the viewing frame has shifted.

The overall mood of Seoul appears to be business as usual, even if that business involves quietly embracing the North. There are brisk sales of books on the North, and the box-office champ of the moment is "JSA," a film about North and South Korean soldiers who become fast friends. Noodle vendors and souvenir hawkers near the DMZ claim a surge in day trips along "Freedom Highway," where glimpses of North Korean hills and fields can be seen over barbed-wired fortifications.

North Korea's best-known deep agent in the South was a popular university professor until he was nabbed by South Korean intelligence for sending clandestine messages by fax to a known North Korean safe house in Beijing just over a year ago. The national mood has changed so radically since his arrest that he has been conditionally released under supervision, viewed not as an enemy of the state but a poignant "victim" of Korea's division and tortured nationalism.

The South's "Sunshine Policy" is not without its detractors, however. Parliamentary opposition has been noisily calling for a more cautious relationship with the North. And in September, U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen visited South Korea, pointedly reminding Seoul that North Korea's "chemical, biological, nuclear and long-range missile programs continue to pose a threat."

But the strongest voices of opposition to Kim Jong Il fever come from the northern defectors themselves. Not unlike the case of anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, northerners who have made it south are among the most vociferous critics.

Former North Korean spy Kim Hyun Hee, apprehended and later pardoned for her role in the bombing of a KAL jet, is said to be furious about the reconciliation with Kim Jong Il. Ditto for Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranked defector from the North and the architect of its philosophy of juche, or self-reliance. Hwang reportedly gives long lectures to anyone willing to listen that Kim is an unrepentant tyrant.

Albright has adopted a more conciliatory tone. Although Kim has lorded over more suffering than Slobodan Milosevic, Albright's been clinking glasses with him in the name of friendship. During her Pyongyang visit, Washington's leading cheerleader for rapprochement waxed poetic, telling Kim that "America's symbol is the eagle, a bird that soars. And Korea's pride is its mountains, which scrape the sky. There is no obstacle we cannot overcome if we make the strategic decision to do so together."

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