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Western Press Review: The Mystery Of The Koreas

Prague, 14 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- With headlines muted this week -- free so far of major wars, startling political or economic developments, or gripping natural phenomena -- substantial Western press commentary turns to the mystery of the Koreas. Commentators grapple with two central questions. In the North, is the symbolic inauguration of dictator Kim Jong-Il a sign of new leadership or merely a recognition of the old? In the South, is the conviction for bribery of the president's son the result of a new respect for law or merely more of the same old corruption?

WASHINGTON POST: Nothing in Kim Jong-Il's record to date gives any reason for optimism

An editorial yesterday says that one insidious effect of the North Korean personality cult is that it renders the nation opaque to outsiders. The paper says: "Recently, North Korean officials suspended the work of an international consortium building a nuclear reactor in their country. The cause of the brief suspension: A photograph of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il had been found torn and discarded in a wastebasket - this in a nation in which even folding such a photograph is regarded as a desecration. Given this cult of personality, it should not have been surprising that when Kim Jong-Il assumed the title this week of general secretary of the Workers Party of Korea, thousands of his subjects were said to have taken to the streets in spasms of spontaneous celebration."

The editorial concluded: "Although, U.S. and South Korean officials have expressed hope that Kim Jong-Il now would lead his nation on a more conciliatory path, nothing in his record to date gives any reason for optimism. Indeed, the thousands of (hungry) Koreans reportedly celebrating his anointing serve as a reminder of what a narrow piece of the world North Koreans have been allowed to view -- and of what a challenge unification will pose, whenever it comes."

NEW YORK TIMES: North Korea's self-imposed isolation will probably be perpetuated

Earlier, it was predicted in an editorial that real change is unlikely: "Like everything else in the opaque world of North Korean politics, the formal appointment this week of Kim Jong-Il as head of North Korea's Communist Party is hard to read with any clarity. It suggests there has been orderly passage of power to Kim, the son of North Korea's longtime dictator, Kim Il Sung, who died three years ago. It may also mean that the country's dogmatic military leaders will take orders from civilian authorities. Neither development augurs any great change in North Korea's self-imposed isolation."

The writer says: "With nearly a million men under arms, the development of new medium-range rockets that can reach Japan and a rhetoric of belligerent confrontation, North Korea's military is a dangerous regional threat. Kim's two overriding challenges will be to establish a regional role for his country that does not depend on military might, and to begin opening up the economy."

NEWSDAY: Even talks about talks, may be the best way to prevent the worst-case scenario

Veteran Far East correspondent Don Kirk writes that Kim's confirmation as supreme leader may reopen the possibility of talks with South Korea and others. Kirk writes: "The anointment of new North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il as general secretary of the North Korean Workers Party reveals the rigidity of a regime too powerful and a people too intimidated to throw out the leadership responsible for driving the country to starvation."

Kirk continues: "While the rest of the world wonders how much food and medical aid to pour into a country that still has enough to support more than 1 million men under arms, North Korea commits itself more deeply to the man and the system responsible for its plight." Kirk says: "The United States and South Korea must remain on guard for war against a regime whose aims and motives are far from clear." And adds: "The opposing sides now are at an impasse. In 'talks about talks' at Columbia University in August and September, they failed to agree on an agenda."

He concludes: "Could it be that Kim Jong-Il, with the confidence of his new title, will find a way to get around the impasse and return to the table? His ascension to his father's most important post offers that hope. Talks, even talks about talks, may be the best way to prevent the worst-case scenario - prolonged suffering and starvation in the North leading to a suicidal war of desperation against the South."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: South Korea is finally learning the rule of law

In a news analysis today, Sonni Efron writes that the conviction of the son of South Korea's president seems to some "proof that South Korea finally is learning the rule of law." To others, she says, "Kim Hyon Chol (merely is) a scapegoat for a changing Korean political culture that is retroactively applying new standards of accountability."

Efron writes: "(He) was arrested in May on charges of peddling his political influence to businessmen in exchange for some 3.5 million dollars in bribes -- and failing to pay taxes on the proceeds. His conviction marked the political nadir of President Kim Young Sam, who came into office as a corruption fighter and jailed scores of businessmen, officials and politicians -- including two former presidents -- in a bid to end South Korea's infamous dirty-money politics."

TIMES: The conviction is a significant blow to the president

Of the same affair, a brief analysis says today: "Another senior South Korean was convicted of corruption yesterday. (Kim) was sentenced to three years in jail and fined (580,000 dollars) for bribery and tax evasion. The conviction is a significant blow to the president, who was elected in 1992 on an anti-corruption platform but has been rendered largely ineffectual by the controversy surrounding his son. (The president) swept to office vowing to root out corruption, but despite jailing two former presidents, (he has lost) standing (due to) scandals."