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The BBC's Matt Frei in Seoul
"The man from the North turned out to be a charmer"
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Thursday, 15 June, 2000, 01:34 GMT 02:34 UK
Korean summit: noting the nuances
Kim Jong-il and  Kim Dae-jung
There was "spark from heart to heart" between the two leaders
By Aidan Foster-Carter

Remember Kremlinology? Back in the days of the USSR, reading the runes of the secretive Soviet system was a highly specialized science - more of an art, really.

Lacking the normal western tools - free access, public data - Moscow-watchers (the same applied to Beijing et al) had to devise alternative methods.

They became adept at noticing new nuances and subtle shifts invisible to the untrained eye.

Now that old-style communism is all but extinct, Pyongyang watchers (the present writer included) are the last survivors of this dying breed.

Kim Jong-il and  Kim Dae-jung shaking hands
Double handshake: in Korea, a gesture equivalent to a hug
For us, the Korean summit has had its own special excitement: as a rare window into a land which, despite major changes that have brought valuable new sources of information - such as over 100 foreign aid workers who travel widely in the country - still plays its cards very close to its chest.

None more so than its leader, the notoriously reclusive Kim Jong-il - now, the formerly notoriously recluse.

A revelation

The dear leader was a revelation, and we must revise our judgments.

For a man with no experience of the media spotlight (although a keen watcher of international TV), Kim Jong-il made a stunning debut.

Particularly for South Koreans, who until now thought of him with horns and a tail, he made all the right moves.

Kim Dae-jung
Kim Dae-jung had not expected a full honour guard
Turning up unexpectedly at the airport, he greeted Kim Dae-jung with a double handshake: in Korea, a gesture equivalent to a hug.

He broke protocol by sharing a limousine with his guest.

Reports that the two men held hands in the back sound odd in the west, but in Korea this is a sign of informality.


All this helped establish what Koreans call "i shim chon shim": spark from heart to heart.

Importantly, culture is one sphere where "in Korea" transcends the north/south divide. One may be capitalist and the other communist, but both are Confucian.

Respect for elders is a key virtue, and again Kim Jong-il scored highly: insisting that Kim Dae-jung take the "power seat" in the limousine (diagonally from the chauffeur), and more generally being solicitous as befits a junior to a senior.

Politically too, the protocol showed respect.

Kim Dae-jung had not expected a full honour guard at the airport.

Yet while observing the niceties, Kim Jong-il simultaneously managed to create an atmosphere of informality and even merriment.

He even joked about his press image as a recluse, and raised a laugh by ironically thanking Kim Dae-jung for saving him from his hermit's life.

Recluse no more

But the fact is that until now he was a recluse: rarely seen in person (let alone heard) even in his domestic media, much less globally.

Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il made this summit his coming-out party
While disavowing the hermit tag, he did admit he prefers to slip around incognito.

He will not have that option in future. Kim Jong-il made this summit his coming-out party; he must know there is no going back.

No longer can he hide behind an aura of mystery. Welcome to the big screen, and the mundane demands of public politics.

Next time - the return visit to Seoul, perhaps? - the spell will have been broken.

The present surge of goodwill - relief really - to find him human after all, will fade if the bonhomie of the past three days is not translated into a sustained process of tangible progress on the many thorny issues which, the morning after, still divide Koreans.

And speaking of the morning after, the Pyongyang-watchers did get one thing right.

Despite telling Jiang Zemin when he visited China last month that he had given up the drink, at the final banquet Kim Jong-il was seen to knock back at least 10 glasses.

Not that any Korean will begrudge him that - if the goodwill is for real, and not just a cynical new twist in Pyongyang's endless repertoire of shadow-boxing. We shall see.

Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea at Leeds University

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See also:

14 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Korea: No going back
14 Jun 00 | Media reports
Korean leaders' table talk
13 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Pyongyang reaches out
13 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Pyongyang, I love you
13 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Picture gallery: Korea's historic day
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