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Kim Jong Il's New Direction
His Stalinist regime is changing — for real

Despite the propagandistic overtones, it was an emotional homecoming. At a ceremony in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Plaza on Sept. 2, 63 elderly Koreans were accorded the kind of welcome reserved for returning war heroes. These were former North Korean guerrillas and spies who had served extended prison sentences in the South — some more than 40 years — for refusing to renounce their allegiance to Pyongyang. They bowed deeply before the statue of Kim Il Sung and later paid homage at his former residence, where the late North Korean leader's body is preserved. "They are our heroes returning home," declared an announcer in a live television broadcast.

Seoul's repatriation of "unconverted" political prisoners to the North was the latest development in the ongoing cross-border dEtente that started with the historic summit in June and continued with the limited family-reunion program last month. A few days before the repatriation, both sides held a second round of post-summit ministerial meetings in Pyongyang. Among the issues agreed upon was launching military dialogue to reduce tensions (a senior South Korean official later said that bilateral talks would be held between the respective defense ministers). A third round of ministerial meetings is scheduled for Sept. 27-30 at Cheju Island in the South.

That North Korea is opening up there can be no doubt. The big question is whether the regime is changing for real — or simply trying to milk maximum concessions from the international community before reverting to its unpredictably dangerous self. Observers are cautiously optimistic that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is plotting the former course, if only out of necessity. The ultimate irony may be that while the aging cold warriors were returning home, their country has been showing signs of setting aside the same communist orthodoxy that they spent decades in jail for.

Seoul-based North Korea expert Han Byung Hoon says Kim Jong Il faces three tasks. The first is to solve the country's immediate economic problems. The second is to open up North Korea gradually to the outside world and earn the trust of others, including the U.S. and Japan. The third is to ensure the long-term survival of his regime.

According to the World Food Program, the North's food grain production for this year is projected to be 3.2 million tons — compared to 4.15 million tons five years ago. Despite signs that the worst is over in North Korea's famine, one South Korean analyst says that the country can barely meet 50% of its food needs and has to rely on outside sources for the remainder. Kim's overtures to the rest of the world — South Korea in particular — are therefore to ensure a continuous supply of food in the short term. Japan has reportedly agreed to provide North Korea with 400,000 tons of rice; Seoul and Pyongyang are also trying to work out a new arrangement in which the North gets a loan to buy food from South.

In the longer term, Kim is seeking to rebuild his economy through cooperation with the South. Sohn Byung Doo, vice chairman of South Korea's powerful Federation of Korean Industries, was part of the delegation that accompanied President Kim Dae Jung to Pyongyang for the June summit. "The North Korean officials who came to see South Korean businessmen were asking serious questions on how they should approach attracting foreign investments," he recalls. "I told them to work on four things: First, look at Shenzhen in China and how they did it. Second, institute laws that protect foreign investments and guarantee the repatriation of profits and dividends. Third, create an internationally acceptable payment system. Fourth, build an industrial park near the South Korean border, perhaps Kaesong."

Kim Jong Il appears to have taken the advice to heart. During a recent visit to Pyongyang by South Korean media executives, he indicated that he was trying to take a leaf from China — that is, to maintain the current political system while opening up the economy. And when he met Chung Mong Hun of Hyundai early this month, Kim retracted his original demand that the chaebol build an industrial park in the northwestern city of Sinuiju and instead gave Chung permission to build it in Kaesong, a city just across the DMZ. South Korean businessmen agree that the idea is feasible, and President Kim Dae Jung has said that North Korea could be exporting products from Kaesong within a year.

But that alone will not bring about North Korea's economic rehabilitation. "Without the U.S. market, the survival of Kim Jong Il's economic policy could be in jeopardy," says economist Yoon Duk Ryong of the Korea Economic Research Institute. Indeed, for Pyongyang to benefit from an export-oriented policy, it would have to follow international standards — and be on good terms with Washington.

That means the regime needs to comply with U.S. demands that it stay away from weapons of mass destruction. South Korean sources say that Kim Jong Il has progressive views on the issue and that the nuclear and missiles programs will not be a hurdle in developing ties with the U.S. But Washington remains wary of Kim's motives; on Sept. 1, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was quoted as saying that the U.S. could blow up North Korean nuclear-weapons sites if Pyongyang continued to build nuclear arms.

Nonetheless, says researcher Lee Jong Kook of the Sejong Institute in Seoul, Kim Jong Il does seem to be serious about not taking a confrontational position with the U.S. Pyongyang's recent flurry of diplomatic activities suggests that it is sincere about engaging the world (notwithstanding the diplomatic brouhaha caused when North Korea's nominal head of state was given an intrusive security search by an American airline on his way to the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York). A senior South Korean business executive who has visited Pyongyang three times in the past year testifies that North Korea is indeed changing. "In my last visit, I was able to receive fax and newspaper clippings from South Korea in my hotel," he says. "That was the first such experience."

Gradually opening up the country is one challenge for Kim Jong Il; ensuring that hardliners do not scuttle the process is another. Song Young Dae, a onetime assistant minister at South Korea's Ministry of Unification and a former negotiator, admits that it is difficult to judge from Seoul how serious an opposition Kim faces — or whether he faces any opposition at all — but points to a number of signs that the North Korean leader is in control. During the summit, Kim Jong Il invited all important party and military officials to a dinner he was hosting in honor of Kim Dae Jung and asked them to express their support by proposing a toast to the South Korean president. The generals and party officials did so. Kim Jong Il also had the entire senior leadership assemble at the airport to see President Kim off. That suggests he has succeeded in neutralizing any threat to his position.

Still, says Song, Kim Jong Il has to be careful not to ruffle too many conservative feathers within the military and the party. During the South Korean media executives' visit, he hinted that he did not have a free hand in state matters. "When I decided to open a direct air route, my proposal was opposed by the military," he told the visitors. "They tend to have a fixed view."

Ironically, though, the biggest threat to Kim Jong Il's position may be less disgruntled hardliners than the very forces he is unleashing in order to save his country and himself. As the economy gradually opens up, Kim may not be able to prevent its impact from reaching social and political spheres. As cross-border exchanges expand, his people will likely become increasingly aware of South Korea's prosperity — and could start demanding the kind of economic freedom enjoyed by their Southern brethren. Meanwhile, the military, which has been training its million men to fight South Koreans, may find itself losing its raison d'etre. "The confusion thus created could become so serious that a major conflict between the conservatives and progressives could emerge and destabilize Kim Jong Il's political system," says North Korea analyst Han.

And therein lies Kim's dilemma: keep the country hermetically sealed and risk total economic collapse — or open up and risk inviting in forces he cannot control. Tough choices for an autocrat, but by opting for the latter, Kim Jong Il has probably given himself at least a fighting chance for survival.

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