[REPORTER'S DIARY]Waiting for the 'Dear Leader'

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[REPORTER'S DIARY]Waiting for the 'Dear Leader'

"Do you think Kim Jong-il is coming or not?" That is the question I, as a reporter on North-South Korean relations, am repeatedly asked by acquaintances about the proposed visit to Seoul by North Korea's leader. But the question used to be, until some time ago: "When do you expect the visit to be?" So the interest among the general public appears to have shifted to the question of whether the reciprocal visit by Mr. Kim will materialize at all. The frantic attempt by the government to confirm what transpired between Mr. Kim and President Vladimir Putin of Russia on a surprise second round of summit talks Wednesday mirrored the acute interest among the public.

But the government declined to disclose to anybody's satisfaction any of the information it was able to receive from the Russian authorities on the surprise summit meeting. There was an unconfirmed report that "Mr. Kim's response to the question of a return visit was negative," but the government declined to confirm or deny this. Politicians in the meantime wasted no time in getting into the ring for another round of squabbles, this time surrounding an alleged scheme to amend the constitution motivated by a political agenda.

When things get blown up to this scale surrounding the possible visit, the government has to be held responsible for a significant part of the confusion. Its answer on the timing of the return visit has changed from "at an appropriate time," made on the day of the joint declaration between the leaders of both Koreas in June 2000, to "in the blossoming spring," last September, and then, the last, "during the first half of the year," said in February.

The guessing game continued, less optimistically, when the planned ministerial talks in March fell through and the director general of the National Intelligence Service at the time, Lim Dong-won, said it was difficult to put a timetable on the visit "because nothing has been decided." A Blue House senior secretary, Kim Ha-joong, added to the confusion, saying, "The possibility seems more and more remote."

The government has appeared desperate about the possible visit. Even President Kim Dae-jung has made public statements on eight separate occasions that a timetable should be disclosed. The Ministry of Unification has recently requested 2.6 billion won ($2 million) for next year's budget to use for a third summit meeting (there has not yet been even a second) between North and South, drawing cynical criticism from the public.

The government would do well to take a step back to review its position on the issue and take a firm but calm attitude toward the North. We could learn more than a few things from the unified Germany, but there is something of particular relevance in the European experience of which our government should take note. Then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany on his visit to East Germany in 1981 invited his counterpart, Erich Honecker, for a visit. That visit did not materialize until 1987, six years after the invitation was extended. There is nothing in the historical record to suggest that Mr. Schmidt tried to press for it to happen during his term in office.

The writer is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Young-jong

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