[TODAY]No visitor from Pyeongyang soon

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[TODAY]No visitor from Pyeongyang soon

There is no doubt that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wants to visit Seoul. He as much as promised President Kim Dae-jung two years ago in Pyeongyang that they would see each other again the following spring in Seoul. The mounting economic difficulties of North Korea also made a visit here important. Only by reaffirming the spirit of cooperation in the June 15 Joint Declaration by a visit to Seoul could the North's leader have expected any financial aid from his southern partner for the urgent electricity, food and railroad repair problems that his country was, and still is, facing. Yet, Mr. Kim did not come.

Mr. Kim offered a logical explanation to the South Korean authorities for why he could not visit Seoul in the spring of 2001. He truly wanted to see and talk with President Kim again in Seoul, but then the Bush administration started its hard-line rhetoric against Pyeongyang, refusing to heed President Kim's advice at the U.S.-South Korea summit meeting in March of last year. Seeing that public opinion against his visit was getting strong in the South, the voices opposing his return visit within the North grew stronger. The voices included those of the military.

Mr. Kim's explanation affirms what we have half-suspected to be the reason for his not returning the visit by the South Korean president two years ago. The hard-line policies of the Bush administration concerning North Korea had put a damper on the lively spirits of both Seoul and Pyeongyang in the wake of the June 15 Joint Declaration. The Bush administration's North Korea policies in turn lent weight to the arguments of hard-liners in Pyeongyang that opposed any agreements without first receiving a guarantee of the security and survival of the present North Korean regime. Seen from that point of view, rumors that the Millennium Democratic Party's leader, Hahn Hwa-kap, will soon journey to Pyeongyang to discuss a visit to Seoul by the North Korea leader sound like nonsense. So do rumors of a surprise visit here by Mr. Kim to inject "nordpolitik" into the December election.

Kim Dae-jung would dream of such a visit, if only to help him put a friendly successor in the Blue House. That's politics. But a question arises about just who would be a friendly successor. Will President Kim try to retain an influential grip from behind the scenes should the Millennium Democratic candidate (at least for now), Roh Moo-hyun, become the next president? Or is the friendly face that of former Prime Minister Lee Han-dong? Or is it Chung Mong-joon?

In the absence of a candidate who would guarantee Mr. Kim's safety after retirement and carry on his policy guidelines, even if a "northern typhoon" blows it would be more a device to thwart Lee Hoi-chang's presidential bid than anything else. Headwinds could also be strong. We saw candidates from Mr. Kim's party blown away by a gust of anti-North sentiment when the Blue House announced the North-South summit meeting in time for the National Assembly elections in April, 2000.

Kim Jong-il, too, would have reasons to be wary about visiting now. He has probably realized that he could not expect the passionate and warm welcome in Seoul that President Kim received when he visited Pyeongyang two years ago. He seems to have judged that Pyeongyang could probably get as much economic assistance as it wants without him having to fly to a city where he would get a less-than-eager reception. He is right, according to the prevailing mood here.

President Kim is a lame duck full of bullets. Two of his sons are in prison, the Millennium Democratic Party is trying to stamp out the vestiges of its links to him, the voice of anti-Kim groups grow louder and his health is precarious. North Korea's Mr. Kim would not wish to waste his trump card on a president so down on his luck. It would be more likely that he would save his card for the victor of the December election.

Visit or no, North-South affairs will progress. The first reason is Kim Jong-il's attitude after the naval clash in the Yellow Sea. Immediately after the incident, he sent explanations to Korea, the United States and to Russia that the incident was unauthorized and was started by his naval commanders in the area. The second reason is that North Korea has started putting free-market reforms such as profits, self-supporting systems for businesses and autonomy for subsidiary institutions into effect. Having begun economic reform, North Korea would need the cooperation of South Korea, if not all of international society. Mr. Kim's speech last October on "reforming and fortifying management of the socialist economy" now turns out to have been a sign of North Korean change. It is time we give up any hope for a visit from Kim Jong-il any time soon, but focus on reaching practical agreements with the North that can be handed over to the next administration. The Gyeungui railroad project, the Mount Geumgang overland route and a permanent house for reunions of separate families would do nicely in the interim.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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