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Cozying Up to Pyongyang
But Kim Jong Il remains as elusive as ever

Kim Jong Il is a master of surprises. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in Pyongyang on Oct. 23, the North Korean leader broke protocol and went to meet her at the guesthouse where she was staying. During the historic North-South summit in June, he unexpectedly turned up at the airport to greet South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Shortly before that, he made a secret visit to Beijing that kept the rumor mills abuzz until the Chinese authorities belatedly confirmed the trip. "He is known for surprise visits," says Park Young Chull, a former North Korean official who now lives in Seoul. "It's because no one decides his schedules."

That the Albright visit took place was itself a surprise. It came about almost at the last minute, taking less than 10 days to arrange. But the trip was as historic as it was hasty. The meeting between Kim and Albright, who is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit North Korea, would have been unimaginable not so long ago and was a further sign that Pyongyang is trying to abandon its label as a rogue terrorist state. For her part, Albright was eager to win concessions from Kim — namely, promises that Pyongyang would stop its missile program and end its support of terrorism. The trip was also seen as paving the way for U.S. President Bill Clinton to visit North Korea before leaving office.

The North Koreans pulled out all the stops for their American guest. She was taken to a kindergarten, where children put on a dancing routine (Albright gamely joined in). She was treated to a mass performance by acrobats and dancers waving banners and flowers at a Pyongyang stadium. She also visited the mausoleum of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung. "This is a new one from a historical point of view," said Kim Jong Il. "I'm really very happy."

Albright's visit may have heralded a new era in U.S.-North Korean relations, but it raised fears among America's allies that the U.S. was moving too fast. Japan and South Korea are concerned that the sudden breakthrough would leave them behind in the peace process. South Koreans have already seen what it means to be out in the cold. Since the June summit, the two Koreas have seemed to be moving closer together. But in recent weeks, the North has abruptly cut off contacts with the South. The third round of ministerial-level meetings was to have been held in mid-October, but that did not materialize. Pyongyang made no moves on a family-reunion program planned for early November. South Korean Unification Minister Park Jae Kyu tried to send a letter to the North, but the North Korean official at the border town of Panmunjom simply refused to accept the missive. Many South Koreans now feel that Pyongyang is ignoring them because it has a bigger fish to fry.

Make that many bigger fish. The Albright visit was simply the climax of a month that saw Pyongyang at the center of intense diplomatic activity by different powers. First, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, considered the second-most powerful man in North Korea, met with Clinton in Washington. On Oct. 20-21, Seoul hosted the Asia-Europe Meeting, during which both Britain and Germany announced that they were ready to normalize relations with Pyongyang. Then on Oct. 22, Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian flew into Pyongyang to "improve the existing friendship and cooperation between the two countries."

Why Pyongyang would want to engage the world is not hard to see. With the country once again suffering from a bad harvest — this year has seen a shortfall of 3 million tons in food supply — Kim knows he cannot afford further diplomatic isolation. His Beijing visit, says North Korea expert Han Byung Hoon, is an indication that he is seeking a "soft landing" through the kind of gradualist approach to market reform taken by China. Political analyst Park Jin notes: "Kim Jong Il is now confident that he is in firm control of all aspects of North Korean politics, the economy and the military" — hence his decision to make his moves now.

If this marks the beginning of the end of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Americans — and the Chinese and the Russians — want to be part of it. As the recent flurry of activities indicate, the region's powers are engaged in a diplomatic dance to determine who will have the most influence over a future unified Korea. But all the maneuvering and all the talk about better relations cannot hide one fact: any further progress depends on North Korea — and no one has any clue how the regime will act next. The world may have been treated to Kim Jong Il's affable side in recent months, but the bottom line is that he remains as elusive and unpredictable as ever.

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