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So Close, yet So Far Away

The world press must report on North Korea from the South - a rather dubious proposition

ONE of the oddest things about North Korea is that most journalists choose Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as a vantage point from which to cover the country.

North Korea rarely admits foreign reporters, so the press is forced to keep its distance. Since dozens of journalists converged on Seoul 10 days ago to chronicle the death of North Korean President Kim Il Sung, the strangeness of this enterprise has become inescapable.

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Geographically, it makes sense to go to Seoul. There are also a lot of people in South Korea who spend much of their time thinking about North Korea: military planners, diplomats, and government officials, among others. Talking to these ``Korea watchers,'' gives you the impression that you are learning something about the North. But always the suspicion lingers that South Korea is the wrong place to be.

For one thing, the country is technically at war with North Korea, since the truce that ended the Korean conflict in 1953 has never been converted into a peace treaty.

The outlook of South Korean officials is inevitably colored by their concern that North Korea could conceivably attack at any moment. It has been this way for 40 years. Stringent security laws restrict people from supporting the ideology of the North, so South Koreans are not free to speak their minds about North Korea.

Accordingly, the Seoul government last week said its citizens could not travel to Pyongyang for Kim's funeral on Tuesday, after the North extended a pointed invitation to southern sympathizers. The police have arrested dozens of students for planning memorials to Kim Il Sung in South Korea and confiscated black-bordered portraits of the departed ``Great Leader.''

There are also practically no North Koreans in the South, save for several scores of defectors who have been extensively debriefed by South Korean intelligence authorities and who are therefore not the most reliable of sources.

And while many people here have opinions about the North, precious few have any facts. Western diplomats say most of their information comes from the North's state-run media.

One Western embassy in Seoul held a briefing for reporters last week so its diplomats could convey how little they knew about the situation in the North. Perhaps out of embarrassment, the diplomats made the journalists in attendance agree not to identify the country the embassy represents.

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South Korean and Western intelligence agencies may have their own sources of information inside the North, but nobody is inclined to discuss this topic. In any case, it seems clear now no one learned of Kim Il Sung's death; only 34 hours later did it become public knowledge.

Strangest of all, for the reporter trying to learn about the North in the South, are South Koreans' legendary mixed feelings for North Korea. They are a trichotomy of fear, loathing, and love. Koreans are, after all, one people, divided by ideology and the arduous memories of the war Kim Il Sung initiated in his effort to unify the country by force. Millions of South Koreans have family members in the North that they have not seen, or heard from, in more than four decades.

Even the most dispassionate and well-spoken southern diplomats, if their family ties link them to the North, will segue from bitter critiques of North Korea's regime to tender comments about the suffering and deprivation they believe their kin must endure.

It boils down to this: When it comes to their beloved enemies to the North, South Koreans are simultaneously too close and too far.

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