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Out of his shell, Kim Jong Il remakes his image

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2000

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - In recent months, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has been leading a reappraisal of North Korea's leader. But this week has made clear that the most enthusiastic player in the recasting of Kim Jong Il is the man himself.

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Kim Jong Il acknowledged yesterday that "Europeans" see him as reclusive, a label he said was overstated, given trips including China this year and Indonesia in 1965. "But your visit," he told President Kim, "made me break out of my so-called seclusion and I thank you for that."

The Pyongyang summit - despite the North Koreans' refusal to admit non-Korean media - amounts to an international debut for Kim Jong Il. He has pulled the wraps off his new image with a flair befitting his interest in moviemaking.

But the firm hand of his regime has been obvious. That is why some South Koreans are unwilling to overlook the reality that Kim Jong Il, whose official title is chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, is a dictator who heads a totalitarian regime.

"I've been feeling rather disturbed by the way some people are thinking about the way the presidential party was welcomed," says Lee Dong Bok, a former member of South Korea's National Assembly and onetime negotiator with North Korea.

President Kim's red-carpet arrival featured the unexpected presence of Chairman Kim, who clapped for his guest as thousands of North Koreans cheered, sometimes chanting their leader's name.

But where many South Koreans were deeply moved by the enthusiastic greeting, Mr. Lee sees "a demonstration of [North Koreans] to stay behind their leader and put pressure on President Kim." Kim Jong Il "is using President Kim as a stepping stone to have a new image of himself created."

"This whole rapprochement can really eat into our sense of guardedness," says Hahm Chaibong, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University whose father was killed by a terrorist bomb allegedly masterminded by Kim Jong Il.

American intelligence services identified the North's Kim as behind a series of bombings, political assassinations, and kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s.

"North Korea is still on our list of state-sponsored terrorists, but their last-known terrorist act took place more than a decade ago," says a Western official based in Beijing. "It's very easy to get on the terrorist list, but very hard to get off."

Mr. Hahm credits Kim Jong Il for orchestrating "quite a debut" after years of near-total mystery. "He knew everyone was watching. He completely overthrew all the misconceptions ... in one fell swoop."

Formerly characterized as an erratic eccentric without sufficient legitimacy as a ruler, Kim Jong Il - in his appearances this week and last month in Beijing - seems bright, jovial, and firmly in control of his nation. As Hahm puts it: "Someone we can talk to because he's a rational person."

Kongdan Oh, an expert on North Korea at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va., says that to understand Kim Jong Il one must study not only history's harshest communist dictators, including Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, but also the imperial despots who ruled Korea for centuries.

"North Korea is a combination of radical socialism and feudal totalitarianism in a royal dynastic setting," says Ms. Oh.

Indeed, North Korea's calendar now stands at "Juche 89," or 89 years since the birth of Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, just as former eras were marked by the rise of a new king. "North Korea is still very much a Confucian culture, and Kim Jong Il is like a semi-god," Oh explains.

An international aid worker who frequently travels to the North says "every other building in the North Korean capital is covered with banners that praise Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il." He adds "the North Korean countryside is dotted with stone shrines and huge Kim Il Sung portraits to mark the spots that Kim visited during his lifetime." Despite his passing in 1994, "Kim Il Sung remains the North's eternal president, and he has an almost mythical status."

r Staff writer Kevin Platt contributed to this story from Beijing.

KOREAS AT NIGHT: In this nighttime US satellite photo, North Korea, affected by years of a faltering economy, is nearly devoid of lights - with the exception of the showplace capital of Pyongyang. Clouds over the Korea Strait soaking up reflected light represent the other major bright area west of Japan.