North Korea sheds image to open talks with South

Enigmatic dictator delights rivals with personal welcome

June 14, 2000|By FRANK LANGFITT | FRANK LANGFITT,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - South Koreans may not have known what to expect when their president arrived in dangerous and much-reviled North Korea yesterday, but nothing prepared them for the unprecedented welcome he received at the first summit since the Cold War enemies split more than a half-century ago.

In a surprise move that opened the meeting on a hopeful note, North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il met South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung at Sunan Airport outside Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il waited patiently on the tarmac at the bottom of the plane ramp as though the South Korean president were an old friend.

Smiling, the two leaders of the divided peninsula clasped each other's hands for several seconds and then strolled along a red carpet, waving and applauding the crowd of about 500 North Koreans shaking red and pink paper flowers and chanting "mansei, mansei," or "hurrah, hurrah."

For the two countries, which are still technically at war, the scene was stunning and reminiscent of the historic 1993 handshake between Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

On the streets of Seoul yesterday, South Koreans were thrilled to see Kim Jong Il. A man they have been taught to despise greeted their president with apparent warmth and respect. Staring at public TVs in underpasses and on the sides of buildings, many were overwhelmed by the images broadcast from Pyongyang.

"It's a dream come true," said Jung Jae Keun, a 39-year-old owner of a construction company. "I believe because of today's summit, we can see reunification sooner."

The two leaders seemed equally struck by the day's events and vowed to capitalize on the opportunity after 55 years of hatred.

"The world is closely watching us," said Kim Jong Il, during a meeting at the Baekhwawon State Guest House in Pyongyang. "Why President Kim came to North Korea and why I accepted must be a question mark. We have to give the answer to these questions during the two nights and three days" of the summit.

At a dinner speech, South Korean President Kim said he hoped the visit would provide momentum to establish peace on the peninsula and reunite millions of families divided before and during the Korean War(1950-1953).

"It is my desire that, through this visit, the 70 million Koreans will be able to be liberated from a possible war," Kim Dae Jung said. "When all the Koreans join forces, there is nothing we cannot achieve."

The two leaders spent an hour chatting during their limousine ride from the airport and met for another 27 minutes afterward. At least one more private meeting is expected before Kim Dae Jung drives back to South Korea tomorrow across the Demilitarized Zone - said to be the most fortified border in the world.

The summit agenda remains vague and many in Seoul have played down the likelihood of any breakthroughs on the myriad issues dividing north and south. South Korea's Kim wants the two sides to develop a way to help separated families connect and reunify.

Pyongyang has rarely permitted such meetings for fear that contact with South Koreans will undermine the regime's tight grip on the minds of its people. North Korean leaders have misled their citizens into believing that South Korea, which has Asia's third-largest economy, is poor and backward.

Yesterday's events were particularly noteworthy because they provided South Korea and the world with one of the closest looks at Kim Jong Il, arguably the most reclusive and mysterious leader on Earth.

Until yesterday, the 58-year-old dictator had never appeared on live television. Rarely seen in North Korea, Kim remains such an enigma to his own people that few have heard his voice.

At the airport and during a later meeting with the South Korean president, Kim Jong Il appeared relaxed and confidant, ambling along the tarmac and occasionally allowing his guest to walk ahead. His demeanor seemed at odds with his international image as dour, inexperienced and insecure. Kim essentially inherited the leadership of North Korea in 1994 after the death of his father, the country's founding leader, Kim Il Sung.

For many in Seoul, seeing Kim Jong Il chatting with the South Korea president had a humanizing effect.

"Watching him on the color TV set brought the message home," said Jo Myung Gon, a 40-year-old, unemployed construction worker. "I just realized Kim Jong Il is a human being, different from the description of the government."

True to its secretive tradition, Pyongyang blocked the release of even the most trivial details about the summit yesterday, leaving most journalists to rely on pool reports from South Korean reporters, the only journalists allowed into North Korea for the event.

While many in Seoul came away with a better impression of Kim Jong Il, a few photo opportunities could not erase decades of distrust and anger toward the north.

"He pretended to be very good to our president," said Kim Min Jung, a 23-year-old student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "But when I was in middle school, they taught us the North Koreans are capable of doing horrible things to us behind our backs."

While few entertained hopes that a handshake would lead to rapid solutions, Song Won Mok captured the optimism surrounding the summit's opening day.

"He's our enemy, but at the same time he's our brother," said Song, a 61-year-old sidewalk evangelist who wonders if the sister he left behind in North Korea is alive more than five decades later. "I'm sure that there will be lots of problems, but on the surface, it looked great."

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