Kim Jong-il, International Man of Mystery

Kim Jong-il, International Man of Mystery

Kim Jong-il, International Man of Mystery

What the foreign papers are saying.
June 15 2000 11:30 PM

Kim Jong-il, International Man of Mystery

Korea and Syria continued to dominate the international news pages at midweek. The happy-clappy Korean summit aroused hopes for reunification mixed with equal measures of wariness and suspicion, while some papers decided to speak ill of the dead in the case of Hafez Assad.

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The North's Kim Jong-il and the South's Kim Dae-jung agreed to allow separated families to meet; to repatriate political prisoners; to promote economic, sports, and cultural exchanges; and to advance reunification "in a manner that respects and recognizes each side's formula." Contentious issues such as the North's nuclear and missile development programs and the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea were side-stepped in this "ice-breaker" meeting.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

Reporters were shocked by Kim Jong-il's friendliness and at the sudden relaxation of the propaganda war. The "dear leader" told South Korean television: "I have visited China and Indonesia in the past, and also made many unofficial visits overseas. So I don't understand why I was described as reclusive." The Times of London said that in recent weeks, the giant signs on the border between the two Koreas had changed, "Where there were once large Korean letters glorying in the independence of the kingdom, new signs now read, 'Oppose fratricidal conflict.' " Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported that music had replaced the political propaganda that has been broadcast from North Korean loudspeakers in the demilitarized zone for 50 years. An editorial in Thursday's SCMP expressed the enormity of the North Korean revision: "Here is some fresh news from Pyongyang: Kim Dae-jung has officially become the 'president' of his country and is not merely the 'powerholder of the South Korean puppet regime.' And he no longer heads a gang of 'traitors' surrounded by 'iron curtains of death,' but instead is the political leader of fairly normal people."

In Ireland, a land that knows something about north-south conflict, the Irish Times claimed that North Korea's readiness to open up relations is evidence that it has "concluded that the policy of strict isolation from the outside world can no longer be sustained if their regime is to survive." The editorial declared that the Pyongyang regime was gambling that South Korea and other states would extend aid and investments to avoid a precipitous collapse akin to East Germany's. "This is a shrewd approach, given that the prospect of such an involuntary reunification fills most South Koreans with dread. Despite decades of propaganda about the desirability of unity, its citizens have grown very much apart from the closed and backward Stalinist regime. There is a widespread fear that taking on the financial burden of reunification would undermine South Korea's hard-won prosperity while the possible migration of millions of impoverished people would be impossible to absorb." The Daily Telegraph reached a similar conclusion: "A repeat of what happened in East Germany would saddle the South with a far greater economic burden and political risk than those borne by Helmut Kohl's government from 1990 onwards." (The same piece was one of very few to mention that while in opposition, Kim Dae-jung was sentenced to death for advocating reconciliation with the North.)

Filing a fashion report on the summit for the London Times, Hannah Betts wrote that Kim Jong-il's "rig-out" was "half 1970s time-warp, half showbiz Never Never Land. Cuban heels, boot-cut flares, aviator specs and a zipped bomber jacket add up to a look that screams 'Castro hits the suburbs.' Topped off with a rakish root-perm thatch, Jong Il resembles a guerrilla version of a Cabbage Patch Doll." In contrast, Kim Dae-jung's style is "Western sartorial sycophancy." He "does a take on preppy formality—1950s suit, penny loafers and Reaganite Grecian 2000 coiffure—and then he shakes it up with his own brand of Eastern Bloc rigidity."

Following the example of Slate's Anne Applebaum ("Good Riddance to Assad"), several papers brought an end to the polite mourning for Syrian President Hafez Assad. Yedioth Ahronoth of Israel said: "In the age of political correctness, we must 'understand the sorrow of the Syrian people' and even 'participate in their profound grief.' Leaders and governments—even those of the enemy—must choose their words. To be careful to honor the dead. To pretend to be respectful. We don't have to be like that, so therefore let us say that we are not too sorry over Assad's death, and deep in our hearts—despite the enjoyment 'Do not rejoice over your enemy's downfall'—we are even a bit happy. From the Israeli point of view, he was a bitter enemy." Writing in Canada's Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee declared, "Enough of this sentimental nonsense. Let us remember Hafez Assad for what he was—a brutal, obstinate, blinkered, weak and fearful man who drove his country into the ground, tried to drive Israel into the sea and missed a historic chance to cement peace in the Middle East." He concluded, "The only 'great emotion' to feel at the death of Hafez Assad is joy."

The British media seem to be doing their best to shake their image of quality programming. Several papers reported that Channel 5, which originally won its license by undertaking to provide "high quality drama, entertainment, news, and factual programs," has been warned by the government to cut down on the sex and nudity in its shows. Most recently, the channel came under fire for broadcasting a nude game show, The Naked Jungle, where nine contestants competed in games on a jungle set. The presenter was also unclothed. Also this week, according to the Times, a radio station was rebuked for promoting its "live" coverage of the Euro 2000 soccer tournament, when in fact the commentators were watching the matches on television. The stations that had purchased the broadcasting rights filed the complaints.