Mr. Kim Goes to China

Article excerpt

Kim Jong Il was the oddest kind of ruler, seen everywhere at home but never abroad. Since becoming North Korea's strongman in 1994, Kim had not met a fellow head of state before last week, when he made a secretive three-day visit to Beijing and talked with President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and other officials. On the insistence of the North Koreans, Beijing disclosed the visit only after it was over, and it was not all diplomacy. Once famous for his alleged love of wine, women and the movie life (he once had his agents kidnap a South Korean film director and his actress wife, just to get a bit closer), Kim confided to his bemused Chinese hosts, "Now I've quit smoking and I drink only a little wine."

Has Kim Jong Il, 58, really changed? His Chinese hosts were clad in Western business suits, but Kim appeared to have stepped out of the 1960's. He wore an ill-fitting gray Mao suit and a lapel badge bearing the likeness of his late father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. Yet there was Kim--a dynastic leader who has made it illegal to log on to the Internet in North Korea--enthusiastically touring Beijing's version of Silicon Valley. Kim appeared delighted by the computers at Legend, China's leading computer manufacturer. Perhaps Kim, whose regime is notorious for demanding goods as payoff in diplomatic negotiation, was just shopping? No, it's not just a tactical move, says Pyongyang watcher Marcus Noland; Kim's Beijing visit may indeed signal a "strategic reorientation in North Korean foreign policy. …