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Pyongyang Still Safer Bet For North Korea's Leader in Second Summit With South

  • Kurt Achin

Leaders from North and South Korea plan to meet this month in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, despite hints at a summit seven years ago that the next one would take place in Seoul. As VOA Seoul correspondent Kurt Achin reports, the idea of visiting the South Korean capital is enough to make North Korea's leader, and those who protect him, lose sleep.

After the first summit between North and South Korea in Pyongyang in 2000, then-President Kim Dae Jung said he had invited North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to visit Seoul. And Mr. Kim replied he would do so "at an appropriate time."

However, South Korean Chief of National Intelligence Kim Man-bok, who arranged this month's summit, says it will again be in Pyongyang. When asked why not Seoul, he gave a polite response.

Kim says North Korean authorities proposed Pyongyang host the summit, because it was the "more elegant" venue, where President Roh could receive the "best possible treatment."

But many experts say it is more than elegance than motivated the decision - namely, fears of a security and public relations debacle.

The first summit featured hundreds of North Koreans in matching outfits, waving bouquets of flowers in unison. That display was made possible by North Korea's totalitarian system, in which thousands are mobilized for choreographed displays of reverence for the Kim family.

Here in South Korea, there is a tradition of boisterous - and occasionally violent - public protest. Political science professor Lee Ki-tak, at Seoul's Yonsei University, says coming to South would be a rude awakening for Kim Jong Il.

He says Kim Jong Il is used to being treated as a god in the North, and North Korean propaganda portrays many South Koreans as feeling the same way. Imagine the surprise, he says, when the "god" finds his motorcade pelted with stones on a visit to the South.

Even in North Korea, Kim Jong Il's movements are kept secret. Because virtually all state power is concentrated in his hands, experts say any danger to Kim Jong Il is a threat to the entire North Korean system.

Hong Jun-pyo, a South Korean presidential candidate, says North Korean authorities are aware of the risk.

He says no matter how much effort South Korea puts into guarding Kim Jong Il, it cannot provide a 100 percent guarantee of his safety.

Simply put, he says, the North Korean leader is afraid he could be assassinated.

There is no shortage of South Koreans unhappy with Mr. Kim. About 10,000 North Korean defectors live here, most of whom made a dangerous journey to escape starvation and repression.

In addition, about 500 South Korean prisoners of the 1950s Korean War are believed to be alive in the North, along with about 500 southerners the North abducted since the war. Relatives of those individuals are among the most vocal critics of South Korean engagement with the North.

Other South Koreans are angry over its test of a nuclear device and its record of human rights abuses.

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