North Korea, the Magician

Things aren't always what they seem in Orwellian North Korea.

The capital, Pyongyang, appears to be a modern city - until you notice no pets, handicapped people, or even bicycles. Foreigners escorted to a village will see well-dressed people walking by, until they notice the shabby, hungry peasants in the distance.

South Korea, too, saw a mirage nearly a decade ago when it signed a reconciliation pact with the North. It faded away.

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Now North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, promises to host a summit meeting with South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, in June.

If it takes place - and that's a big if - it could be a historic breakthrough in ending an unresolved war on a dangerous corner of the globe, where 37,000 American soldiers face a large North Korea Army along the DMZ.

Or, if past is prologue, it might be a cynical ploy to gain some advantage.

The outcome may influence not only Asia's future, but possibly a plan by the United States to deploy an anti-missile defense system to keep North Korean missiles from hitting Alaska. That plan has upset strategic US ties with Russia and much of Europe.

The reclusive North has a history of sneaky treachery: putting bombs in airplanes, hiding bomb-grade nuclear material, reneging on agreements, etc.

And it often assumes the same from others.

When officials from the North first visited Seoul 10 years ago, they just assumed South Korea had brought in many cars as a sign of make-believe economic progress. Their hosts responded by saying that they also moved in the skyscrapers.

Perhaps, though, North Korea has decided not to be a spoiler this time. Kim Jong Il has had six years since his father's passing to consolidate his power over the military. A major famine and economic collapse have shown its communist ideology needs a correction.

And perhaps the North has finally realized that it can't break the strategic alliance between the US and South Korea. The South, too, has had eight years of democracy without a military leader.

The Clinton administration has been using more diplomatic carrots than sticks to bring the North in from the cold war on the Korean peninsula. It has been helped by the "sunshine policy" of President Kim, who promises food and agricultural aid to a hungry North.

That kind of openness to a duplicitous regime takes courage and hope, especially when so many domestic critics demand toughness and skepticism. As the US has seen in Northern Ireland and the Mideast, cautious optimism often ends up being more cautious than optimistic.

The few clues of a new North Korean attitude should be welcomed. But with no illusions about its past.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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