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Charting a Course With North Korea

LIKE Franco of Spain, Salazar of Portugal and Tito of Yugoslavia, Kim Il Sung cast a mighty shadow in a very small place. Like them too, his passing leaves his nation a geopolitical anachronism likely before long to be swept over by pent up forces held silent during his reign.

This should be kept in mind by policymakers, intelligence analysts, and other commentators. Many seem now to lament Mr. Kim's departure, or at least to be casting a nervous eye on his putative dynastic heir, Kim Jong Il.

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Kim's remarkable half-century in power was driven by the strategic vision of a Korean peninsula united under his totalitarian rule. Toward that end he waged an aggressive war against South Korea, later building an army of more than 1 million men configured to strike at the heart of the South.

He humiliated the US, his adversary's protector, by shooting down an unarmed electronic eavesdropping plane and capturing the intelligence ship, Pueblo, neither of which had violated North Korean territory. He murdered US soldiers in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas and built tunnels to serve as invasion routes to the South.

Insular, unsophisticated, and with judgment warped by the guidance of sycophants, Kim could be audacious, brutal, and profoundly wrong all at once. He assassinated members of the South Korean Cabinet in Rangoon apparently believing the attack would trigger revolution back home. Affronted by snubs from the International Olympic Committee, he blew up a civilian Korean Air- lines flight in a vain effort to force cancellation of the 1988 Seoul Games.

Kim's nuclear program began in earnest in the late 1960s. At his death he had forced the United States to finesse the question of whether he already had one or two atomic weapons and to enter an aggressive bidding campaign to preempt his developing dozens more.

For this the Clinton administration earns no condemnation. It has been playing from a weak hand, lacking the support of key players for the imposition of economic sanctions and forced to contemplate the destruction of Seoul and the loss of perhaps 200,000 South Korean civilians in the event of war.

Given Kim's record and the propensity of other politically stifled societies to change for the better when their dictator passes from the scene, the trepidation expressed by so many about a North Korea under Kim Jong Il is hard to fathom. Young Kim is thought to be weak. While his rule may be imposed on North Korea's elites, it is widely believed they will not fully accept it. Military leaders in particular remain skeptical. He will have to court their approval. This could lead to a hardening of North Korea's stance, increased bellicosity, or military adventurism.

But one senses the reverse is more likely. Kim Il Sung's legacy is a dysfunctional economy that pales by comparison with the prosperous South and a huge, underpaid army of draftees who spend nearly one-third of each year planting and harvesting. If the experience of China and the former Soviet Union is any precedent, such an army is more likely to counsel reform than aggression.

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The experience of both great communist powers further suggests that the death of a charismatic all-powerful leader is more likely to presage a period of reform - uneven, politically painful, and incomplete though it may be - than of retrenchment.

For the US then, patience, persistence, and resourcefulness ought to govern its approach to North Korea. Assuming he succeeds his father, young Mr. Kim ought to be given sufficient time to formulate new policies so long as the nuclear situation in his country does not worsen. That means no reprocessing of any plutonium recently removed from the Yongbyon reactor, no reloading of plutonium rods into its empty core, and no completion of the new, more-capable reactor now under construction.

All of this must be supervised by International Atomic Energy Agency personnel, who have remained in North Korea precisely for that purpose. Should young Kim harbor any illusions about the separability of nuclear, political, and economic cooperation, he should be disabused of them promptly. At the same time, future economic and even nuclear cooperation should be left on the table. Artificial deadlines and gratuitous threats should be shunned. New efforts should be made to establish direct and indirect links with other segments of North Korea's political society, particularly the military. China could play an important intermediary role.

The thrust of the US message ought to be that economic and political reform, desperately needed in North Korea, would be welcomed in the West, which stands ready to lend its good offices to the effort. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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