- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's recent flurry of diplomatic activity could signal a revival of the stalled rapprochement with South Korea and the United States, a leading South Korean official said.
Rep. Rhee In-je, a member of the leadership council of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's Millennium Democratic Party and a front-runner in the polls to succeed Mr. Kim next year, said in an interview Monday that Kim Jong-il's extended trip to Moscow earlier this month, his hosting of a European Union delegation, and a planned summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin all pointed to movement soon on the divided Korean peninsula.
"I take it as proof that North Korea is ready to consider opening up and serious reform," said Mr. Rhee, who vowed to continue his party's "Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with the North after a half-century of hostility.
That policy produced the historic June 2000 visit by the South Korean leader to Pyongyang, but follow-up steps — including a promised visit by the secretive Kim Jong-il to Seoul — have been slow in coming.
Mr. Rhee said he did not believe either sagging domestic support for the Sunshine Policy or the Bush administration's extended pause to review U.S.-North Korean policy has damaged the rapprochement effort.
Mr. Bush's policy review "did not create any permanent impediment to Korean unification because unification ultimately has to go through inter-Korean dialogue," Mr. Rhee said.
He said popular support for ending the bitter hostility between South and North remains overwhelming, although he admitted that many in South Korea "have been disappointed at the attitude of the North."
A State Department North Korea analyst, speaking at a major gathering yesterday of Korean scholars and diplomats, agreed that the North's recent diplomatic moves represent a positive step.
"I am guardedly optimistic," said John Merrill, acting Northeast Asia division chief in the department's Office of Analysis for East Asia and the Pacific. Stressing that he was expressing a personal opinion and not U.S. government policy, Mr. Merrill said, "Kim Jong-il is apparently in the outreach, summit mode. It may be that the road to Washington leads through Moscow, Europe and China."
In an interview, the 52-year-old Mr. Rhee does not hide his ambitions to succeed President Kim, who must step down when his term expires in December 2002.
He finished third in the 1997 presidential campaign and, since joining the president's Millennium Democratic Party, leads in the early polls for the MDP nomination. He also fares best in the head-to-head race against Rep. Lee Hoi-chang, the expected candidate of the opposition Grand National Party.
The South Korean politician had a 45-minute private meeting yesterday with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage before returning to Seoul this morning.
Despite winning the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to ease tensions with the North, South Korea's President Kim has faced mounting political troubles at home over the apparent lack of progress in the peace talks and the struggling South Korean economy.
Growth slumped to 2.7 percent in the second quarter and Mr. Kim has pressed banking and other reforms that challenge the cozy relationship between government and big-business interests.
Mr. Rhee made it clear he intended to press forward with both Mr. Kim's Sunshine Policy and with his market-oriented reforms, but he added that he expected the 2002 presidential election to mark a watershed in the country's young democracy.
President Kim, former President Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil, the aging leader of the splinter United Liberal Democrats, are known collectively as the "three Kims," dominating the country's political scene for decades.


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