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A kinder, gentler Dear Leader?

This week’s summit and the events leading up to it have provided precious clues about the mysterious Kim and his shadowy regime in Pyongyang. MSNBC’s Kari Huus reports.
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This week has been, by the standards of North Korean President Kim Jong Il, a whirl of public social activity. He wined and dined with South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung, president of a country his has been officially at war with for 50 years, and agreed to seek reconciliation with the south. Kim Jong Il, one of the world’s most opaque leaders, even tried to recast his own reputation in an “aw-shucks” kind of way.

“Some Europeans have wondered why I am so reclusive,” mused the man in charge of what U.S. President Bill Clinton has called the most “terrifying place” on earth. “I am not such a great figure worthy to be called a recluse.” For the “Dear Leader,” as his country’s propaganda calls him, it may have been the most open, humble - indeed, most endearing - moment. The man with his finger on the nuclear button, described by South Korean propaganda as a madman and a drunk, was almost likeable.

“Many South Koreans were shocked to see Kim Jong Il because he looked like a very normal person,” said long-time Kim watcher, Doowan Lee, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. Even after reading the North Korean tea leaves for more than 10 years himself, he said, “I did not know he (Kim Jong Il) could make jokes. I didn’t know he could be so confident.”

Of course, the popular conception of Kim Jong Il stems in part from South Korean propaganda - including, likely, questions about Kim’s mental stability. [On Friday, in a sign of just how big a shift had occurred during the summit, South Korea ordered the suspension of all anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts and promised swift action on agreements reached at their historic summit.]

Some analysts have long believed that not only is Kim stable, but intelligent, and has been in control of North Korea as far back as the 1970s, long before the death of his father, Kim Il Sung in 1994. But never before were indications that he had nailed down the essential loyalty of North Korea’s military quite so convincing.

A peek behind the curtain
This week’s summit and the events leading up to it have provided precious clues about the mysterious Kim and his shadowy regime in Pyongyang. Among the clearest conclusions drawn by Korea analysts is that Kim is firmly in control in North Korea, contrary to reports of recent years suggesting that the regime was about to be toppled.

“He couldn’t have done this if he didn’t feel his power firmly in place,” said Clark Sorensen, head of the Korea Studies program at the University of Washington. “It shows he has consolidated his power since his father’s death in 1994. He is confident.”

By most accounts - coming from Chinese and South Korean traders, hungry refugees who cross the border into China, and defectors - the North Korean economy has hit bottom. The loss of Russian and Chinese backing, natural disasters, and infrastructure meltdown have led to, by some estimates, as many as 2 million deaths by starvation in the last five years. It’s a crisis that sheer nationalism and repression cannot fix. And the summit is widely seen as a sign that Kim Jong Il is looking for a practical approach to recovery.

Kim’s dilemma: Recovery is essential, but reform is perilous.

“In the North - this is a very repressive regime - the quicker the pace of contact and opening (to the outside world), the greater the chance of political control unraveling,” said Keith Rabin, head of KRW International in New York, a consultancy specializing in North Asia. “North Korea is so far behind that any change threatens to pull down the whole edifice.”

The China model
Prior to the summit, Kim made a quick visit to his allies in Beijing - a secret mission that was reported by the leaders only after the fact. While some viewed the trip merely as a political statement, the economic side of the mission has received the most attention.

Beijing has long been urging its allies in Pyongyang to reform their failing economy; China has itself demonstrated how to adopt capitalism with a great degree of success without losing political control. China’s reforms started in the late 1970s, first allowing farmers to partially privatize their crops, then setting up special economic zones for foreign investment - coastal areas near capitalist Hong Kong that exploded into boomtowns. Gradually, the reforms expanded to other parts of China, and to allow private ventures.

The official Chinese press widely reported that Kim was in awe of China’s progress as he rumbled through the countryside in his special Pyongyang train. The North Korean official press was far more circumspect, however, suggesting that the two sides “showed appreciation” for each other’s systems. That suggests that Kim is not prepared to copy Beijing’s reforms. In the early 1990s Pyongyang launched a couple of investment zones, but they fizzled due to poor location, poor management and red tape. If North Korea really wanted to make investment zones a success, many analysts suggest, the government would establish one near the border with South Korea.

Relying on the conglomerates
Kim Jong Il appears instead to be pinning his hopes for rebuilding the North’s infrastructure on massive infusions of cash from the chaebols, the large conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s massive economy. This has been made possible by the election in 1997 of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who launched a new “sunshine policy” that attempts to separate political and economic questions. For the first time, South Korean companies are now encouraged to invest in the North.

“It makes sense that Kim likes dealing with South Korea’s conglomerates,” said Sorensen. “These are huge companies - not cowboys, but huge bureaucracies - and they operate much like government organs, from the top down,” said Sorensen. ”(Kim) doesn’t want a lot of little small transactions across the border.

The top conglomerates are already getting more involved. Daewoo has an electronics plant in the North, and Hyundai has established a regular tour from South Korea to the sacred Mt. Kumgang, for instance.

At the same time, wealthy taxpayers in the South will help bear the cost of North Korea’s economic recovery. Seoul has allotted $450 million to a fund aimed for rebuilding in the North. With Russia and China no longer willing or able to help Pyongyang, and the United States imposing too many conditions, Seoul is by far the best alternative.

Pyongyang has also made overtures to other countries, recently re-establishing diplomatic relations with Italy and Australia. But analysts are wary of seeing it as proof North Korea is opening up to the outside.

“The system is on life support. And maintaining outside aid to keep life support running is of paramount importance,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. “But diversifying and increasing the number of those subsidizing is not the same as opening up. So it’s open to interpretation. We haven’t seen enough yet to say.”

And just prior to this week’s promising summit, a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited Pyongyang in the ongoing effort to police North Korea’s agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons program. The mission was a washout.

A fading era?
At Kim’s coming-out party, he showed no sign of loosening the repressive controls within North Korea. Possibly the most significant change was the fact that he dignified Kim Dae-jung with the title “president” instead of “imperialist lackey” before his domestic audience. He also welcomed the South Korean delegation with a grandiose display, but this is of course standard procedure in a country known for its political theater.

The Kim family is the only communist dynasty, and relatives of Kim Jong Il’s extended family are believed to be in influential posts throughout the government, though the state releases virtually no information to verify this. Kim is thought to have had at least three wives and some eight children. In recent months, reports churning through the rumor-driven South Korean and Japanese press claimed that Kim is grooming a son, Kim Jong Nam, just as his own father groomed him.

Though Kim appears to face no direct threat to his power he may face a systemic problem: growing decadence among the party elite. In the border towns of China, and reportedly even in Pyongyang, many of the ruling class are whoring and building mansions for themselves.

This, even more than the summit, may signal the end of an era, say some North Korea watchers.

“These are positive signs,” said Robert Dujarric, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute. “The (North) Korean regime is gradually being corrupted. ... When that happens in a communist country, its totalitarian grip is slipping, it means its days are numbered.”