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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

Handle With Care
Kim Jong Il has reason to celebrate, but dangers lurk

On Feb. 16, North Korea celebrated the 58th birthday of its leader Kim Jong Il with customary fanfare. But for reasons best known to himself, the reclusive helmsman did not show up at any of the public festivities. His country, of course, is impoverished and famine remains a threat. But predictions abroad of the collapse of his regime have proved unfounded. In fact, Kim has reason to be happy. The past year may have been North Korea's best since the death in 1994 of his father, Great Leader Kim Il Sung.

For one thing, food production is increasing - and starvation receding. And international aid agencies have not only learned to live with Pyongyang's strictures on their operations, but are planning bigger programs. Investors, while not exactly flocking to North Korea, are at least eyeing it with wary interest. On Feb. 3, Fiat and the Tongil group, the South Korean business organization backed by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, broke ground for a small North Korean joint venture that will start assembling cars next year. Up to a dozen other companies are either already in production in the North or seriously considering the prospect. And despite all the starts and stops, KEDO - that cumbersome consortium formed by Japan, South Korea and the U.S. - has finally started construction of two light-water nuclear reactors at Kumho. (The project is part of a 1994 deal to end Pyongyang's nuclear-arms program.) Top chaebol Hyundai is in talks with the North about where to set up a multi-billion-dollar industrial park.

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Diplomatically, too, isolated Pyongyang is on something of a roll. In early January, it established formal relations with Italy. Nations ranging from Japan and the Philippines to Australia and Lesotho are mulling closer relationships, or even full diplomatic ties. The North recently revamped its bilateral agreements with Russia. And on Kim Jong Il's birthday, Pyongyang opened a consulate in Hong Kong, one of the few cities where such a facility overlaps with a South Korean diplomatic presence. Indeed, the traditionally glacial pace of change in North Korea seems to be speeding up.

One outsider who has done much to nurture it is South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, with his conciliatory - and controversial - "sunshine" policy. He is a man in a hurry. He wants, before his term ends in 2003, to hold a summit with Kim Jong Il. But the North's leader, who is not bound by term limits, feel less urgency about having such a meeting. To secure one, Kim Dae Jung may need to offer terms loaded in Pyongyang's favor. And that may pander to North Korea's aggressive tendencies.

Already, former U.S. defense secretary William Perry, architect of Washington's North Korea policy, sees potential trouble. Though his advocacy of engagement with Pyongyang is widely applauded in Asia, Perry recently warned of a power struggle "within the North Korean government between those who see the benefit of normalizing diplomatic relations and those who see the hazard of doing that." While Kim Dae Jung's efforts to open dialogue are commendable, a go-slow approach would be best. That would give the sclerotic Pyongyang leadership time to absorb and digest its expanding web of international ties and obligations. Too often in the past, the world attached overly optimistic interpretations to the slightest signs of progress in North Korea. Kim Jong Il may have cause to celebrate his country's advances, but he still needs to show he can build relationships better than he can sow tensions.


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