Promises, promises

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Once again, rosy optimism billows out of the Korean Peninsula. And once again the rest of the world might remember that atop the regime in Pyongyang sit world-class thugs who have repeatedly refused to abide by their agreements.

President Bush started the latest surge of hope two weeks ago with a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, urging him in polite but firm terms to keep his pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons. Six years ago, Mr. Bush made Mr. Kim a charter member of the “axis of evil.”

Then the New York Philharmonic accepted North Korea’s invitation, with the blessings of the State Department, to give a concert in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in February. To ensure the orchestra was prepared, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has posted on its Web site the full score, from piccolo to bassi, of the North’s national anthem.

And for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953, a South Korean cargo train chugged into North Korea last week headed for the joint North-South Korean Kaesong industrial complex. Unification Minister Lee Jae Jeong was onboard as a representative of the Seoul government.

And Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has asserted North Korea has been dismantling its nuclear reactor at Yongbong even if it is not yet ready to account for the rest of its nuclear program. U.S. officials, however, have neglected to point out that experts who have seen the reactor said it was falling apart and nearly useless.

Amid this mostly upbeat news, people outside of Korea might recall a South Korean diplomat named Lee Bum Suk. In autumn 1972, Lee was among those who escorted a visiting North Korean delegation around Seoul. It was the first such journey since the Korean War and included a stroll through the Secret Garden that once was the joy of Korean kings.

In autumn 1983, Lee, then Seoul’s foreign minister, was murdered along with 16 other South Korean dignitaries by North Korean terrorists who exploded a bomb among them during a trip to Burma. In charge of such operations then was Kim Jong-il, who is now the North Korean leader.

In addition, North Korea tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee in 1968 and again in 1974, when an assailant missed the president but gunned down his wife, Yook Young Soo. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported recently that North Korea sent 3,693 armed agents into South Korea from 1954 to 1992 and had continued intermittent incursions and kidnappings since.

Today, clues to current North Korean thinking abound. The reaction to Mr. Bush’s letter to Mr. Kim was distinctly underwhelming. It rated all of two sentences in a KCNA dispatch, far less than its report on Mr. Kim’s inspection of a cotton plantation.

At the same time, KCNA published a blistering attack on the United States, lamenting that the Bush administration had manifested “extreme hostility toward the DPRK,” or Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea.

KCNA asserted that North Korea was acquiring nuclear weapons, despite the difficulties in doing so, “to cope with the U.S.‘ continued hostile policy toward the DPRK.” The official organ declared: “The DPRK can never abandon its nuclear program unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy toward the DPRK.”

In another dispatch last week, KCNA contended that the port call of an unnamed U.S. nuclear-powered submarine in Pusan, South Korea, was “a reckless criminal act of chilling the denuclearization process in the Korean Peninsula and driving the situation into the brink of war.”

All this, KCNA concluded, “convinces the DPRK that there is no other option but to increase the military capabilities for self-defense in every way.” The news agency, widely considered to reflect the thinking of Kim Jong-il closely, occasionally expresses contempt for the West, particularly its democracy. It claimed last week that much-touted freedom and democracy “are nothing but camouflage to hoodwink working masses and cover up the reactionary nature of bourgeois dictatorship.”

An authority on North Korea, Aidan Foster-Carter of the University of Leeds in Britain, has said periods of optimism about North Korea are but “false dawns.” He has argued: “Again and again, we start over with North Korea without asking what went wrong the last time or how come we never get past first base.”

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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