New Leader Kim Jong Il Should Seize His Opportunity

BY all that is logical and rational, this should be a turning point and a time of remarkable opportunity for North Korea.

With the passing of Kim Il Sung, the new leader, his son Kim Jong Il, could nudge North Korea out of its dangerous isolation.

Before his departure, the senior Kim had set the scene for possible change by agreeing to talks with both the United States and South Korea, which he had long considered his archenemies.

This followed a tense confrontation with the US over North Korea's persistent clandestine development of nuclear weapons.

Nobody knows whether the senior Kim was bowing to the realities of mounting pressure from the US or whether he was skillfully manipulating further delays in punitive American action while he proceeded apace with his nuclear program.

But whether the senior Kim was sincere or not, he has afforded his son, Kim Jong Il, the opportunity to proceed with those negotiations if he chooses.

Logic would dictate that he should. In stark contrast to South Korea's thriving free-market system, North Korea's communist system is a disaster. Military spending is a huge burden; North Korea spends some 25 percent of its gross national product on defense, versus South Korea's 5 percent. North Korea's only real solution is to emulate China and open up its economy to foreign technology and investment.

Diplomatically and internationally, North Korea is isolated and a pariah. Clinging to communism after communism's day is over, it has been abandoned by such erstwhile supporters as Russia, to which North Korea is now an embarrassment. Much of the rest of the world, particularly neighbors such as Japan, are nervous and apprehensive about the North Korean nuclear program.

Meanwhile, North Korea deliberately has fostered its isolation, letting few Westerners visit and enshrouding its own people in a cocoon of anti-Western propaganda.

The question now is whether the realities of the situation will encourage Mr. Kim to change course and try to integrate his country into the international community.

He is a man of some mystery. He has traveled little. The West is unknown to him. His public appearances are few. US intelligence sources say that videotapes showing him in various meetings and settings do not encourage great confidence in his stability. Those who have seen the tapes say that if he is not psychotic, he nevertheless has an inferiority complex and is capricious, arrogant, and erratic.

Kim has cemented his role in North Korea's authoritarian regime by installing cadres loyal to himself in the bureaucracy over the years. ``He's got his ducks lined up,'' says one US expert on North Korea, ``but on the other hand, many of the military technocrats in the leadership of the armed forces have been abroad and know the score about the outside world. If he tries to do something [that would be] suicidal for his country, they may balk.''

A compounding problem will be that, whatever course Kim pursues, he will not have the same stature and charisma at home as his father, who ruled North Korea with an iron hand for decades.

The fragility of the status quo and the instability of the new leader are hardly comforting to the outside world. By ordering an attack across the demilitarized zone into South Korea, Kim could kill tens of thousands of people and maim hundreds of thousands using only conventional weapons. Brandishing nuclear weapons, he would be much more dangerous.

The US should not be provocative while it waits for North Korea's new leader to signal his intent. But neither should the US allow any doubt that its diplomacy is backed by power that it ultimately is willing to use.

Appeasement is not a satisfactory policy toward a new North Korean leader who may turn out to be as devious as the old.

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