- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

The pictures are compelling: the wide smiles, the intense jocularity, the let's-bury-the-hatchet demeanor.

But did Kim Jong-il, the wily "dear leader" of North Korea, really mean it?

Against a backdrop of euphoria in Seoul, North Korea accused the United States yesterday of raising the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula with the announcement in Washington that it has no plans to withdraw its troops from South Korea.

"The U.S. imperialists pretend to be interested in peace and detente in the Korean Peninsula," declared Rodong Sinmun, a newspaper for the ruling North Korean Workers' Party. "However, all their acts only result in increasing the danger of war and escalating the tensions." The newspaper is regarded as speaking for the government.

North Korea has, since the Korean War ended nearly a half-century ago, routinely accused the United States of preparing for a war on the Korean Peninsula and calls U.S. troops in the South the source of military tension in the region.

Among Korea watchers in the United States, hope is mixed with a strong dose of skepticism that North Korea, almost overnight, could turn its back on 50 years of hostility toward its prosperous Southern neighbor.

Stephen Solarz, a former Democratic congressman from New York and an experienced Asia hand, agrees that Mr. Kim's summit meeting last week with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was an extraordinary development. Still, he says, "there is ample reason to be very cautious about the lions having lain down with the lambs."

Peter Brooke, East Asia expert on the House International Relations Committee staff, adds: "I don't think Kim Jong-il has undergone an epiphany."

Nicholas Eberstat of the American Enterprise Institute expresses qualms but says it was refreshing to hear North Korea refer to the head of South Korea as "president."

"They always maintained that South Korea was a monster with no legitimate right to exist," he says.

Like the other analysts, Mr. Eberstat worries whether Kim Jong-il intends to carry out his promises to work toward peaceful reunification with the South and reuniting long-divided families.

He says Mr. Kim, always called "the dear leader" in Pyongyang, may have put on his wily best demeanor for the summit. "A shaky North Korean system has just negotiated a huge infusion of foreign aid without making any concessions on nuclear issues," Mr. Eberstat says. South Korea has budgeted $450 million in assistance to Pyongyang this year.

William Drennan, a Korea expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says it's difficult to reconcile Mr. Kim's charm offensive at the Pyongyang summit with the leader's disreputable past.

Mr. Drennan and other experts cite strong evidence of Mr. Kim's role as the mastermind of a terrorist bombing of a South Korean passenger plane that killed 115 persons when it crashed off the coast of Burma on Nov. 29, 1987. South Korea always has held the North Korean leader, who was then in a subordinate position, responsible for the attack but has muted its criticism in deference to Kim Dae-jung's efforts at accommodation.

Mr. Drennan cites other aspects of Mr. Kim's rule, carried over from the era of his late father and longtime North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, whom the North Koreans always refer to, reverentially, as "the great leader."

He notes that North Korean diplomats routinely have been caught selling illicit drugs and contraband cigarettes and trading in counterfeit money. At home, Mr. Kim presides over one of world's most repressive and economically deprived states.

Mr. Solarz, drawing on his experience as a congressman, says he had a sense of deja vu something familiar about the agreements signed last week. He recalls the high hopes generated on Dec. 13, 1991, when the two sides signed the "Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation Between the South and the North." The agreements were never implemented "because of the recalcitrance and intransigence of Pyongyang."

The new agreements contemplate far more people-to-people contacts between South and North, and Mr. Solarz notes that thousands of South Koreans visit the North's most spectacular tourist site, Diamond Mountain, each year but under conditions imposed by the North that preclude any contact with ordinary North Koreans.

"One has to wonder whether they are really prepared to do an about-face," Mr. Solarz says.

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