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A Hermit Nation Opens Its Doors a Crack in Spring

Asia: North Korea has received visits by the South's envoy and from foreigners. Its overtures fuel speculation of a regime looking to change.

April 25, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHEJU CITY, South Korea — Even though he presides over one of the world's most shut-off societies, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il keeps abreast of world affairs by logging on to the Internet. On recent trips to China and Russia, he was an inquisitive sightseer, closely studying the effects of capitalism.

This description of the reclusive 60-year-old comes from diplomats who recently returned from rare trips to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, made in an effort to coax the regime out of its isolation. They believe that Kim is eager to bring foreign investment and outside influences into his bastion of undiluted communism--if it can be done without endangering his hold on power.

"He really wants to open up and reform his economy, but he doesn't know how to do it," said Lim Dong Won, a South Korean presidential envoy who spent five hours closeted with Kim this month.

"Kim Jong Il is emerging as someone who is increasingly aware of the outside world," said Donald P. Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who met with two North Korean officials in Pyongyang this month. "There are indications that he wants North Korea to rejoin the world."

After months of brooding over President Bush's "axis of evil" designation, North Korea appears to be coming out of its pique--even if only because it wants to loosen purse strings.

In fact, given that Pyongyang is hardly a popular stop on the diplomatic circuit, the recent visits amount to a veritable flurry of activity. In the weather-report lingo so often applied to Korean relations, this could be called the Pyongyang spring.

Gregg's trip to Pyongyang, although unofficial, marked the first time that a high-ranking American had traveled to the North Korean capital since then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited in October 2000. It is expected to pave the way for an official trip by U.S. special envoy Jack Pritchard within the next six to eight weeks.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's nearly moribund "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea also gained a reprieve with the Pyongyang visit of his special envoy this month. Reunions between separated Korean families are scheduled to resume Sunday after a more than yearlong hiatus, and North Korea appears to be talking in earnest again about road and rail links to the South.

Other recent visitors to Pyongyang have included Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, an old friend of Kim Jong Il.

The improvement in North Korea's attitude most likely stems from mercenary motives. Sales of its main export--missiles--have dried up since Sept. 11 because of heightened concerns about terrorism. Shortages of food and electricity have left the country chronically dependent on foreign donors. The North's agreement to resume talks and family reunions was accompanied by a pledge from South Korea that it will supply 200,000 tons of fertilizer and 300,000 tons of rice.

Cynics, of which there are many, say the North is doing the bare minimum diplomatically to keep the foreign aid flowing.

"They are trying to find a way out without changing the system," said Jean-Jacques Grauhar, who spent seven years as a business consultant in Pyongyang and now runs the European Chamber of Commerce in Seoul. "They are trying to gain time."

One of the most mysterious world leaders, Kim took over the Democratic People's Republic of Korea after the 1994 death of his father and the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. Despite Kim Jong Il's reputation in his youth as a capricious playboy, some believe that they have seen in him glimmers of a future Mikhail Gorbachev who, like the former Soviet leader, would reform the system.

Hopes soared after June 2000, when South Korea's Kim made a historic trip to Pyongyang, but there has been little tangible progress.

Former U.S. Ambassador Gregg, who spoke with reporters this month at a peace conference here in the main town on Cheju island, said that Kim Jong Il logs on daily to the Internet, paying close attention to the outside world and studying the changes in China and Russia for clues on what to do in North Korea.

After a trip to Moscow last year by rail, Kim sent a thank-you note to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in which he wrote, according to Gregg: "You have made wise choices. Communism will never return to Russia."

William J. Perry, a defense secretary and special envoy to North Korea under the Clinton administration, echoed the view that Pyongyang is looking to change.

"The North Korean government believes it is in their self-interest to come into the modern world and to do what they need to do to engage South Korea and the United States," Perry said at the same conference. "They are not doing us a favor. It is in their self-interest."

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