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Another False Dawn from N. Korea?

By Richard Halloran

Once again, rosy optimism is billowing out of the Korean Peninsula. And once again, the rest of the world might remember that atop the regime in Pyongyang sit world-class thugs who have repeatedly refused to abide by their agreements.

President Bush started off the latest surge of hope two weeks ago with a personal letter to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, urging him in polite but firm terms to keep his pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons. Six years ago, Bush made Kim a charter member of the "axis of evil."

Then the New York Philharmonic accepted North Korea's invitation, with the blessings of the State Department, to give a concert in Pyongyang in February. To make sure the orchestra was prepared, the official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, has posted on its Web site the full score, from piccolo to basses, of the North Korean national anthem.

Moreover, for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953, a South Korean freight train chugged into North Korea last week headed for the Kaesong industrial complex that is run jointly by North and South Koreans. Unification Minister Lee Jae Jeong rode the train to represent the Seoul government.

And Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has asserted that North Korea has been dismantling its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon even if it is not yet ready to account for the rest of its nuclear program. U.S. officials, however, have neglected to point out that experts who have seen the reactor said it was falling apart and nearly useless.

Amid this mostly upbeat news, people outside of Korea might recall a South Korean diplomat named Lee Bum Suk. In autumn 1972, Lee was among those who escorted a visiting North Korean delegation around Seoul. It was the first such journey since the Korean War and included a stroll through the Secret Garden that had once been the joy of Korean kings.

In autumn 1983, Lee, by then Seoul's foreign minister, was murdered along with 16 other South Korean dignitaries by North Korean terrorists who exploded a bomb among them during a trip to Burma. The North Korean then in charge of such operations was Kim Jong Il, now the North Korean leader.

In addition, North Korea tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee in 1968 and again in 1974, when an assailant missed the president but gunned down his wife, Yook Young Soo. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported recently that North Korea sent 3,693 armed agents into South Korea from 1954 to 1992 and had continued intermittent incursions and kidnappings since then.

Today, clues to current North Korean thinking abound. The reaction to President Bush's letter to Kim Jong Il was distinctly underwhelming. It rated all of two sentences in a KCNA dispatch, far less than its report on Kim's inspection of a cotton plantation.

At the same time, the news agency published a blistering attack on the U.S., lamenting that the Bush administration had manifested "extreme hostility" toward North Korea.

The KCNA asserted that North Korea was acquiring nuclear weapons, despite the difficulties in doing so, "to cope with the U.S.'s continued hostile policy" toward Pyongyang. The official organ declared: "The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name) can never abandon its nuclear program unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy toward the DPRK."

In another dispatch last week, the news agency contended that the port call of an unnamed U.S. nuclear-powered submarine in Pusan, South Korea, was "a reckless criminal act of chilling the denuclearization process in the Korean Peninsula and driving the situation into the brink of war."

All this, the KCNA concluded, "convinces the DPRK that there is no other option but to increase the military capabilities for self-defense in every way."

The news agency, widely considered to reflect the thinking of Kim Jong Il closely, occasionally expresses contempt for the West, particularly its democracy. It claimed last week that much touted freedom and democracy "are nothing but camouflage to hoodwink working masses and cover up the reactionary nature of bourgeois dictatorship."

An authority on North Korea, Aidan Foster-Carter of the University of Leeds in Britain, has said that periods of optimism about North Korea are but "false dawns." He has argued: "Again and again, we start over with North Korea without asking what went wrong the last time or how come we never get past first base."

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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