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June 30, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 25 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Once a Stalinist . . .
North Korea will be slow to change

So did the Kim-Kim summit change North Korea from rogue state to pragmatic partner? Listen to this from Pyongyang's official media four days after the talks: "The outstanding greatness of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il as a peerless politician lies in the fact that he has scientifically led the revolution and construction to a brilliant victory without a mistake or failure for nearly 40 years . . . The moves of the imperialists and reactionaries to stifle [North Korea] have been totally smashed by his bold grit and just politics." Sounds like the Stalinists are alive and well in Pyongyang.

North Korea is changing. The surprises that emerged from the summit -- from Kim's smiling welcome at the airport of southern President Kim Dae Jung to the ending of the loudspeaker war across the demilitarized zone -- are the latest in a series of many small steps. The reclusive regime recently opened diplomatic ties with Italy and Aust-ralia. The reputedly hermit-like and ideologically calcified Kim Jong Il traveled to Beijing and voiced his admiration for China's market-oriented economic reforms. At the summit, he told his guests that he is a "pragmatist."

Southern analysts say that Kim has little choice except to put aside hardline communist ideology if he wants to revive his starving nation. "I am certain that he will give more thoughts to economic development," says Kim Jae Chull, chairman of the Seoul-based Korea International Trade Association. But whether opening up North Korea to investment will also lead to looser restrictions on its society is doubtful. There is no way to tell if any Northern hardliners are opposed to opening the nation economically, but certainly there are no signs that any elements are thinking of opening the totalitarian state socially or politically.

And what of the ordinary people? Southerners who accompanied Presi-dent Kim say they felt a change. On previous visits they had found North Koreans to be unsmiling and stiff, but this time they felt genuine warmth from the crowds that lined the streets. "The people may have been asked [by the government] to welcome us, but the affection they showed could have come only from their heart," says painter Cha Bum Suk. Maybe so. But until Pyongyang loosens its tight hold on society, affection has little chance of turning into mutual understanding -- the kind needed for reunification.

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