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Will life imitate art?

South Korea's blockbuster movie feeds hopes and fears for relationswith North.

Talk about mixed messages.

just as South Koreans are being asked by their government to "engage" with North Korea, suddenly the nation is taken by storm with its first Hollywood-style blockbuster that depicts the North as ruthless and untrustworthy.

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The movie, called "Swiri" for a fish that migrates along the Korean peninsula, is the most expensive film ever made in South Korea. It's a shoot'em-up action flick cum love story set with a political backdrop of North Korean treachery. And it's on track to break theater attendance records.

Swiri is also the code name for a North Korean terrorist operation in the movie that's poised to spark a second Korean War.

The film's plot starts in 2002 and assumes that inter-Korean reconciliation is going so well that political leaders attend a friendly North-South soccer match in Seoul. But lurking in the stadium rafters are North Korean commandos planting bombs. With heartstopping shootouts, South Korean agents race to save the day.

In real life, however, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is promoting a "sunshine" policy of business and cultural ties with North Korea. So far, it's yielded a tourist project, with expectations of more ventures and cooperation.

But the movie has also fueled a debate over whether President Kim's "sunshine" ignores North Korea's darker side.

Inter-Korean relations beginning with the North's invasion that kicked off the 1950-53 Korean War have engendered deep suspicion of its true intentions. Agreements, such as accords in 1992 on denuclearization and reconciliation, are often made but later derailed by North Korea. In 1984, the two Koreas presented a common team in the Olympics. Three years later, North Korea bombed a South Korean civilian jet to dissuade visitors from attending the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

The latest uncertainty is over a 1994 agreement, known as the "Agreed Framework." In exchange for halting activities at certain nuclear facilities, North Korea was to receive two new reactors and oil supplies, primarily from South Korea, Japan, and the United States. But US diplomats weren't shocked when North Korea test-fired a multistage rocket last August, or when US satellites detected a new suspected nuclear facility. North Korea has thus far refused to allow inspection of the site. The isolated Stalinist state can be expected to wiggle around any agreements limiting its sovereignty, diplomats say.

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But others, particularly in Congress, are indignant that the US is aiding such a threatening country. The hubbub sparked a US policy review, led by former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

Kim believes North Korea is ready for change - its moribund economy and consequent famine are forcing it into dialogue, and perhaps, a fundamental shift in direction. North Korean officials are reportedly taking courses in capitalism with the World Bank. And last month the North even made direct appeals for government-level talks with the South.

To encourage this behavior, Seoul announced new politically correct language: Instead of pushing North Korean "openness and reform," Seoul will talk of "modernization." Instead of encouraging agricultural "restructuring," Seoul will support "development."

The polite new language and TV images of South Korean tourists hiking the North's famed Diamond Mountains have the South's military leaders worried.

To counter any relaxed attitudes and maintain a sense of mission, "Swiri" will be used as a military training film. South Korea's brass believe North Korea will never abandon its aggressive stance.

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