South Koreans Feel Unexpected Regret

Signals of rapprochement from the North's Kim Il Sung before his death raised hopes for reunification

THE last time Kim Il Sung died - it was November 1986 and the South Korean press had greatly exaggerated rumors of his demise - there was jubilation in this city. Now that the real thing has come to pass, the reaction here has been much more restrained.

To be sure, some people have celebrated. In the eyes of the vast majority of South Koreans, Kim was a tyrant responsible for the Korean War and for maintaining a dictatorship that has kept a single people divided for almost five decades. But had he died just a month earlier, the glee displayed in 1986 (and at other times when rumors of his pass-ing appeared in the press here) would doubtless have reoccurred with similar magnitude.

Kim's agreements at the end of last month to pursue talks with the United States on North Korea's nuclear program and to hold a summit meeting with South Korea's president altered his image and gave many people cause to hope that the long-sought-after reunification of the North and South would come soon.

Consequently, many South Koreans say the initial shock they felt last Saturday has turned to a sense of opportunity lost. The North Koreans announced on Tuesday that the summit would have to be postponed.

Some southerners - including eight members of the country's National Assembly - have even called on the government to express condolences to their northern brethren. Leftist students have put up banners mourning Kim, praising his fight against Japanese occupiers in the 1930s and `40s and his attempt to make North Korea independent from foreign powers.

These South Koreans, however, have evidently crossed a line. The lawmakers, all members of the opposition Democratic Party, and the television networks that aired their comments received hundreds of calls of protest. All but one of the legislators have since apologized. The police have arrested dozens of students for planning local memorials to Kim this Sunday, when his funeral will be held in the northern capital of Pyongyang.

The government of President Kim Young Sam has rejected the notion that it should console the North Korean people, a position that the media largely supports. An editorial in yesterday's English-language Korea Herald poured scorn on the students and the legislators: ``Recounting Kim's despicable record leaves no room for any condolences upon his departure.''

One former South Korean government official was even a little put off by President Clinton's expression of sympathy. ``I could understand his motivation,'' says the official, whose career gave him broad experience with the nuances of diplomatic language. ``But I think he went a little too far.... The wording could have been a little different.''

Mr. Clinton defended his remarks by saying they were in the interest of the US. The South Korean lawmakers, too, insist that their motivation was correct.

Nam Kung Jin, one of the eight legislators, says government officials should recognize the opportunity that the situation presents to build mutual trust with North Koreans. ``If they really want to reopen [preparatory talks for] the summit,'' asserts Mr. Nam Kung, ``first of all they have to express their condolences to North Korea.''

Among South Korea's students, there is also a sense that an official expression of condolence would speed the pacification of the Korean Peninsula. Kim Hong Shik, a graduate student in Korea University's political science department, calls the demand of the eight lawmakers ``quite proper and rational.'' He adds: ``It was a good opportunity for the South Korean government to take the initiative in solving North/South problems.''

Mr. Kim, the student, could hardly be called a radical. He was interviewed in the one-time office of Han Sung Joo, once a professor in Kim's department and who is now serving as South Korea's foreign minister. Kim calls the sentiments of the leftist students ``clumsy and inappropriate.''

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