The South Korean government has severely damaged its international credibilty by its handling of reports about North Korean President Kim Il Sung's demise. The reports have turned out to be false, as many suspected. But intriguing questions remain, the first one being: If the whole excercise was a typical case of disinformation, who was responsible - North or South Korea? Another lingering possibility is that there really is a power struggle going on in North Korea.
Monday, rumors of an assassination circulated around much of the noncommunist world, fanned by South Korean Defense Ministry briefings on North Korean loudspeaker broadcasts near the DMZ - the 155-mile demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
Yesterday, Mr. Kim was photographed greeting Mongolian President Jambyn Batmonh at Pyongyang airport. He was wearing a hat and dark glasses, but diplomats who know him and who shook his hand at the airport ceremony had no doubt it was Kim himself.
The South Korean Defense Ministry, however, stuck to its guns. The latest North Korean loudspeaker broadcast took place yesterday at 10:04 a.m. local time, 19 minutes before Pyongyang Radio said Kim greeted Mr. Batmonh, according to the ministry's spokesman. He said that the 10:04 broadcast said: ``A big star of the nation has just fallen to earth. Let us glorify the great achievements made by him.''
Although the Defense Ministry has released transcripts of the alleged broadcasts, it refuses to release the tapes from which the transcripts were allegedly taken - despite journalists' repeated protests that failure to do so only heightens suspicion. Other broadcasts the ministry said it monitored yesterday referred to Kim Il Sung's son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Il, as ``everlasting leader of our nation'' and to North Korean Defense Minister O Jin U as having ``grasped political power. The whole nation positively supports him.'' (These loudspeakers exist on both sides of the DMZ and are used by both sides to exhort each other's people to defect.)
South Koreans who were overjoyed Monday at reports of Kim Il Sung's death were angry or embarrassed Tuesday. ``As a Korean I feel embarrassed,'' said a Protestant pastor. In parliament, opposition floor leader Kim Hyon Kyu demanded that the entire Cabinet resign. ``By prematurely announcing inaccurate intelligence information to the nation, [the Defense Minister] has created a problem of international credibility,'' he said.
In fairness to Seoul, it should be noted that the latest spate of rumors about Kim's demise began in Tokyo. But the rumors would never have made front-page headlines if the Defense Ministry in Seoul had not briefed reporters Monday about North Korean loudspeaker broadcasts.
Some observers think the whole business smacks of South Korean efforts to justify cracking down hard on domestic opponents. But others think that if this was all a disinformation campaign, North Korea was the perpetrator. It is Seoul, not Pyongyang, that has been made to look foolish in the eyes of the world. And the South Korean government's crackdown on students and other opponents took place before, not after, the broadcasts.
There also remains the possibility of a North Korean power struggle between Kim Jong Il's supporters and opponents. Defense Minister O, titular No. 3 in the Politburo, may indeed have led a coup. But seasoned observers warn that speculating about Pyongyang politics is more esoteric than reading tea leaves.