Sun, Dec 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Optimism about North Korea is sadly misguided

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.

US President George W. Bush started off the latest surge of hope two weeks ago with a personal letter to 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 US State Department, to give a concert in Pyongyang in February.

To make sure the orchestra was prepared, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has posted on its Web site the full score of the North Korean national anthem.

Moreover, for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953, a South Korean cargo train chugged into North Korea last week headed for the Kaesong industrial complex that is run jointly by the North and the South.

Unification Minister Lee Jae-jeong rode the train to represent the Seoul government. And US 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. US 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 the autumn of 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 the autumn of 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.

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 non-partisan 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 Bush's letter to Kim 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, KCNA published a blistering attack on the US, lamenting that the Bush administration had manifested "extreme hostility toward the DPRK," or Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

KCNA asserted that North Korea was acquiring nuclear weapons, despite the difficulties in doing so, "to cope with the US' continued hostile policy toward the DPRK."

The official organ declared: "The DPRK can never abandon its nuclear program unless the US rolls back its hostile policy toward the DPRK."

In another dispatch last week, KCNA contended that the port call of an unnamed US 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."

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