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NOVEMBER 6, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 18


Chien-Min Chung/AP.
Kim Jong Il has continued his charm offensive by welcoming Madeleine Albright, but hasn't loosened his grip on North Korea.

First Contact
Dropping into the Alien Nation, Madeleine Albright cuddles up to North Korea's Kim Jong Il. But can he be trusted to keep the peace?
By MASSIMO CALABRESI Pyongyang

ALSO
Viewpoint: Pyongyang still poses a threat

Madeleine Albright shifted uneasily. Against the backdrop of a giant, air-brushed mural of waves crashing against striated rocks, the U.S. Secretary of State could only smile as North Korean protocol officers bustled her unceremoniously from one spot to another. Retreating to the periphery, the attendants joined senior U.S. aides and other North Korean officials, leaving America's most powerful woman standing stiffly alone in the center of the room, her blue suit clashing with the lime green carpet. Silence settled over the group as they awaited the arrival of the man known as the Great Leader.

This was no ordinary engagement with a foreign dignitary. Albright was about to become the first American official ever to meet Kim Jong Il—onetime playboy, inveterate recluse and all-powerful ruler of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The odd couple had serious issues to discuss at their tête-á-tête in Pyongyang last week: Albright wanted promises that Kim would abandon his long-range missile programs and dangled the possibility that U.S. President Bill Clinton might visit North Korea before his term expires. That could open the way for badly needed international loans for North Korea. But the symbolism of the meeting was huge in itself—and might well be the only concrete accomplishment of Albright's trip.

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As the presidential race nears the endgame, contenders Al Gore and George W. Bush are still looking for the knockout punch to win over the legions of undecided voters

NORTH KOREA: Kim Puts On a Show
With poise, promises and a mass celebration, the nation's Great Leader does his best to impress Madeleine Albright in his first encounter ever with an American official
Viewpoint: Pyongyang still poses a threat

JAPAN: Tape It Shut!
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's mouth gets him in trouble—again

THAILAND: What Recovery?
Though the country has pulled out of its financial tailspin, many citizens are still suffering—and blame the Prime Minister
Report Card: The IMF overreached in Asia

TRAVEL WATCH: Who's Got the Best Business Class in Asia?

Given the reclusive nature of Kim and his country, the inside look afforded by the trip may be reward in itself. Until his summit with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung earlier this year, the North Korean leader cut an almost comic figure. Photos showed him weirdly decked out in matching green '50s-style trousers and zip-front jackets, his hair shaved on the sides and standing erect in a Don King-like coif. Stories were told of aid workers being made to bring in Western videotapes for Kim, who reportedly had his minions kidnap two famous South Korean actors to bolster his country's film industry. Bombastic South Korean intelligence reports even had him infusing himself with the blood of virgins to stay young and luring Western models for his harem. Had Kim's record of domestic oppression been less grim, and his pursuit of nuclear and missile technology less intense, he might have appeared a harmless frivolity.

What he is beginning to look like instead is a Great Showman. Those gathered to witness the meeting with Albright were alerted by the hurried entrance of half-a-dozen men in dark suits, armed not with weapons but with antique Panaflex movie cameras and hand-held spot lamps. As the massive wooden doors began to open, the crew sent their Panaflex shutters clattering like enormous insects. Kim walked in, a short man with a full potbelly. His shoes were well shined and formed pointy triangles below his trademark green trousers. His skin looked pallid and his eyes slightly puffy, but he was in good humor as he strode toward Albright. She grinned and said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, "I'm very glad to be here, it's a beautiful city."

But Albright didn't see much of the real North Korea. Secluded at the garish "100 Flowers Blooming" Guest House outside the capital, she emerged only for a visit to a school receiving U.S. aid and for formal dinners and engagements. Away from the motorcade route, the city and the country struggle with severe shortages of food, energy and medical supplies. The foreign press corps was corralled in a downtown hotel and the journalists' minders from the Foreign Ministry did their best to keep them there, but some caught glimpses of the North Korea beyond. In one downtown hospital all the lights were out except for those in the foyer illuminating the portrait of Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung. Outside one subway entrance a young man squatted beside a steaming pot, gingerly pouring boiling water over the corpse of an unskinned dog.

In the mid-1990s North Korea became synonymous with such deprivation: the number of people who have died from hunger is estimated at 1 million or more. This year a springtime drought and fall typhoons have had a disastrous effect on the rice harvest. Many in the countryside have been forced to supplement their diet with berries, mushrooms and even grasses, according to the World Food Program representative in Pyongyang, David Morton. In Hamhong province, the local and international Red Cross are providing building materials and other aid to 1,200 homeless families and are targeting 5.8 million people still in need of medical and other aid throughout the country.

The show that Kim is putting on is surely meant to distract those suffering people, as well as the outside world. After their first meeting, Albright agreed to attend what the Great Leader, in a surprise invitation, had described as a gymnastics event. As she and Kim entered the stadium, a crowd of more than 50,000 people let out a sonorous, sustained roar as if at the flip of a switch. In every direction blue-suited party members clapped and shouted. On the field costumed performers danced and sang and waved colored pom-poms. Fireworks exploded overhead, and the Great Leader waved. An enormous billboard indicated the spectacle was meant to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party.

More than 100,000 performers acted out scenes of socialist glory with translated names like "If the Party Decides, So We Do" and "The General and People Are a Single Mind." On the field thousands of performers imitated the action of waves and fire and a billowing flag. Filling the stand opposite Albright some 25,000 people, each displaying a succession of colored cards, produced in rapid succession enormous high-resolution images. One depicted Kim's Mercedes driving through waves of grain beneath the slogan "2 Harvests a Year." Another showed an enormous portrait of Kim Il Sung against the background of a North Korean flag, topped with the headline "One-Minded Solidarity."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Albright had known beforehand the performance would celebrate the Party's anniversary, but could not refuse Kim's invitation. "We want to continue the process of improving relations," he said, adding that Albright had delivered to Kim a letter from President Clinton detailing what would be necessary for those relations to thaw. Critics fear the U.S. is cozying up to Kim too quickly without getting enough in return. "There is no reason for President Clinton to go to North Korea now," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "No steps taken by North Korea are significant enough to say that they are serious." Albright says her talks made "important progress" but would provide no indication of substantive headway beyond continuing bilateral meetings.

Backers of the engagement policy say it is worth pursuing Kim to see what's behind the newly friendly facade. "If Albright and Clinton can get a verifiable deal to freeze Pyongyang's missile program, this would greatly reduce tensions throughout Northeast Asia," says Clay Moltz, assistant director at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Just the fact of the contact was important, say U.S. officials, and Kim showed himself to be stable, unemotional and pragmatic. But by the same token, Kim hasn't had to give much indication of how far he's willing to go to satisfy Washington. That leaves Albright and the rest of the world's North Korea watchers still guessing at the mystery of Kim's land.

With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul

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