The Rising East


Sunday, September 2, 2001

Kim fortifies links
with allies as talks with
U.S. approach

IF EVER anyone qualified as an enigma, a mystery wrapped in a riddle, it would seem to be the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.

Or is he rather a sly fox who has maneuvered the Russians and the Chinese to North Korea's advantage as did his late father, the dictator Kim Il-sung, who played off one against the other for years? By all accounts, Kim Jong-il is not so cunning as his father but appears to have learned his lessons well in lining up allies as he gets ready to negotiate with the United States.

Those negotiations are as yet unscheduled but they are in the wind and the outline of what's coming can be discerned. A proposed deal would have U.S. troops reduced or withdrawn from South Korea while North Korea pulled its massed army back from the demilitarized zone that has divided the peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Kim Jong-il has just come back from a journey on the trans-Siberian railway to Moscow in which his behavior bordered on the bizarre. He was away from Pyongyang for 24 days -- an astounding absence for a head of state -- most of it riding the rails with an entourage of 150 aides in 17 carriages.

En route, Kim backed out of a visit to a tank range in Omsk for fear about his security. He snubbed a peasant family in Novosibirsk whose father had once saved the life of the revered elder Kim. He skipped official receptions and sightseeing expeditions in Moscow.

A RUSSIAN newspaper, Vremya Novostei, called Kim's visit "surreal" and criticized the government for agreeing to Kim's request that parts of Moscow be cordoned off for security. "It is clear," the paper said, "that Russia is not courting the Pyongyang leader out of love for him personally or for the Stalinist regime he heads."

Another newspaper, Kommersant, said, "Moscow was ready to put up with all the North Korean guest's eccentricities" to gain his support for President Vladimir Putin's stance opposing President Bush's plans for missile defenses, a backing Kim was all too ready to give.

Kim will have a chance to work his wiles on President Jiang Zemin of China, who is scheduled to visit Pyongyang this week. North Korea's ethnic and historical ties with China have been stronger than those with Russia, so expect profuse expressions of solidarity.

Having arranged visible backing from his principal allies, Kim will then be ready to negotiate with the United States, after months of stalling.

This is where the sly fox comes into play. Kim has criticized President Bush's plans for missile defense as signs of "political and diplomatic immaturity." This complaint, however, is a smokescreen for what Kim really wants, which is to get 37,000 U.S. troops out of South Korea. Kim doesn't stay awake at night worrying that a U.S. nuclear missile will incinerate Pyongyang. He does worry about detailed U.S. and South Korean war plans that would have American forces drive across the DMZ and on to Pyongyang despite their professed defensive mission in South Korea.

THE NORTH KOREANS have made clear their thinking in pronouncements carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "To allow the U.S. troops to stay in South Korea is as dangerous as sleeping on the powder keg where a time bomb was planted," KCNA said. "The foremost task of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea towards the United States is to force the U.S. troops to withdraw from South Korea."

For its part, the Bush administration has said that it wants a cut in North Korean conventional forces, especially those deployed close to the DMZ, to be on the agenda in negotiations. Bush officials have also insisted that any discussion about U.S. forces in South Korea should only be with the South Koreans.

The U.S., however, may not be able to keep those issues separated as the North Korean demand will reverberate among anti-Americans in South Korea and Japanese who want the U.S. to leave Okinawa and other bases in Japan. It is certain to gather support from China and Russia and among liberal activists in the U.S. Even members of Congress seeking to cut military spending may like it.

With those blizzards swirling about them, American diplomats assigned to negotiate with the North Koreans are in for a long cold winter.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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