Villain or `capable leader'?

South Korea softens view of North leader as summit nears

June 12, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - Until recently, North Korea's Kim Jong Il was widely regarded as one of the world's nastiest and most eccentric leaders. Cutting a distinctive figure in a black pompadour, platform shoes and a gray Mao-style suit, the pudgy, 58-year-old dictator has been famous for his taste in nubile actresses, luxury cars and movies.

He presides over a hermit government that, having failed to feed its citizens, routinely imprisons and even executes those who try to flee abroad so that they can eat. So why are so many people saying such nice things about Kim Jong Il these days?

As the summit between the leaders of North and South Korea opens tomorrow, a day later than scheduled, Kim is undergoing a makeover. South Korea, which once portrayed him as a ruthless sadist, praises Kim as a competent leader. Chung Ju Yung, founder of South Korea's Hyundai Group, has described him as "courteous and well-mannered."

Last week, South Korean elementary school children included Kim Jong Il's bespectacled face in an outdoor mural alongside that of their president. All of that for a man who is alleged to have ordered the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987 that left 115 dead.

"Everything that we have heard or seen about Kim Jong Il of recent is positive," said a U.S. diplomat in Seoul. "He strikes those who meet him ... as reasonable, intelligent and capable. That's a fairly uniform impression that people seem to have."

This week's summit is the first between the leaders of the two Koreas since the peninsula was divided after World War II. The meeting could provide the greatest chance for peace between the Cold War rivals and shed light on the mysterious man behind one of the world's most reclusive governments.

Before the recent rapprochement, South Korea spared no effort to savage Kim Jong Il. In 1993, the English-language Korea Herald published "The True Story of Kim Jong Il," an entertaining hatchet job that portrayed him as a man without a redeeming feature.

The 145-page paperback, produced by the Institute for South-North Korea Studies, says the dictator was bad from the beginning. A former assistant to Kim's father, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung, describes Kim the younger at age 4 stomping on every insect and earthworm he could find.

As an adult, he created a "pleasure team" of young women who served the sexual needs of him and his father. Kim ordered the kidnapping of South Korean actress Choi Eun Hui in 1978 to improve North Korea's film industry. After her escape in 1986, she described the Stalinist leader's lavish lifestyle.

"At the parties, we usually danced to the band music of foxtrot or disco and occasionally gambled playing blackjack or mah-jongg," Choi wrote. "Kim Jong Il was constantly offering me drinks, disregarding my weakness in drinks. They were drinking Western liquor, cognac." Choi also had some nice things to say about Kim, but they're not in the book. She said she found him bright, confident and self-deprecating at times. Given the secrecy surrounding Kim and his country, separating spin from substance is practically impossible. Recent attempts to cast Kim in a new light might be as much a function of the diplomatic demands of peacemaking as a re-evaluation of biased intelligence reports based largely on information from North Korean defectors.

Moon Chung In, director of the Institute of Korean Unification Studies at Seoul's prestigious Yonsei University, says earlier South Korean governments suppressed positive information about Kim because they wanted to topple his government.

After South Korean President Kim Dae Jung began pushing for reconciliation with Pyongyang, the government took a second look at North Korea's "Dear Leader," as Kim Jong Il is officially known.

"I think there has been some distortion," said Moon, who credits Kim for surviving politically after his father died in 1994. "Everyone predicted that he would collapse when Kim Il Sung died, but on the contrary, he was able to consolidate power."

In the past year, Kim has gone on a diplomatic offensive, establishing relations with Australia and Italy while perpetuating the notion that he is a changed man. In what might have been his first trip outside the country in 17 years, he secretly traveled to Beijing last month to meet with Chinese leaders.

During the three-day trip, he toured the Legend Group, China's mammoth computer company. Chinese television showed a grinning Kim giving President Jiang Zemin a bear hug and a kiss on each cheek. In a suggestion that he was maturing, Kim told Chinese officials that he had quit smoking and cut back on his drinking.

After Kim's return home, the New China news service quoted him as praising Beijing's market economic reforms, raising the possibility that he might someday adopt similar measures to rescue his impoverished, famine-stricken, Communist state.

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