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Out of his shell, Kim Jong Il remakes his image

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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - In recent months, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has been leading a reappraisal of North Korea's leader. But this week has made clear that the most enthusiastic player in the recasting of Kim Jong Il is the man himself.

Kim Jong Il acknowledged yesterday that "Europeans" see him as reclusive, a label he said was overstated, given trips including China this year and Indonesia in 1965. "But your visit," he told President Kim, "made me break out of my so-called seclusion and I thank you for that."

The Pyongyang summit - despite the North Koreans' refusal to admit non-Korean media - amounts to an international debut for Kim Jong Il. He has pulled the wraps off his new image with a flair befitting his interest in moviemaking.

But the firm hand of his regime has been obvious. That is why some South Koreans are unwilling to overlook the reality that Kim Jong Il, whose official title is chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, is a dictator who heads a totalitarian regime.

"I've been feeling rather disturbed by the way some people are thinking about the way the presidential party was welcomed," says Lee Dong Bok, a former member of South Korea's National Assembly and onetime negotiator with North Korea.

President Kim's red-carpet arrival featured the unexpected presence of Chairman Kim, who clapped for his guest as thousands of North Koreans cheered, sometimes chanting their leader's name.

But where many South Koreans were deeply moved by the enthusiastic greeting, Mr. Lee sees "a demonstration of [North Koreans] to stay behind their leader and put pressure on President Kim." Kim Jong Il "is using President Kim as a stepping stone to have a new image of himself created."

"This whole rapprochement can really eat into our sense of guardedness," says Hahm Chaibong, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University whose father was killed by a terrorist bomb allegedly masterminded by Kim Jong Il.

American intelligence services identified the North's Kim as behind a series of bombings, political assassinations, and kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s.


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