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Images of N. Korea are undergoing a makeover

Some in South appear fascinated by Kim Jong II

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SEOUL, South Korea — At the height of the Cold War, many South Koreans were taught in school that North Koreans were a shifty, aggressive lot who might be lurking in their midst as spies. Cartoons often depicted them as wolves and monsters.

That image has faded since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, head of a communist state once synonymous with menace and mystery, began communicating with the world this year.

Conciliatory events from the reunions of separated families last week to the performance of a North Korean philharmonic orchestra in Seoul this week are helping humanize a country deemed dangerous, unpredictable and even weird since the 1950-53 Korean War.

During the reunions, 100 North Koreans and an equal number of South Koreans, separated from relatives for half a century, met with family members in Seoul and Pyongyang.

South Koreans watching live television footage saw neatly dressed North Koreans at their most vulnerable: sobbing, kneeling and bowing before infirm parents and reminiscing over photo albums with long-lost relatives.

"In the past, we thought that the strange North Koreans had horns on their heads. The current exchange of visitors should serve as an occasion to correct that," said South Korean novelist Lee Ho-chul, part of a Red Cross team that traveled with family members to Pyongyang.

There were awkward, even chilling moments, as when North Korean family members intoned praise of Kim Jong Il, who commands a personality cult in the North and is revered as "Great Leader."

The South Korean relatives, more accustomed to criticizing their democratic politicians, usually waited in silence for these monologues to end, although a few argued.

In the North, some South Koreans were alarmed at their relatives' shabby clothes and often scrawny appearance, and slipped them U.S. dollar bills. Most of the Northerners who came South were dapper, hand-picked luminaries.

There is still uneasiness about North Korea's reasons for opening up and questions about how far it will go, because change inevitably will weaken the government's control over its people. Desperation for economic aid from the South and elsewhere is considered a key motive.

Kim Jong Il still commands a huge military and has rejected U.S. appeals to stop developing missiles. Yet South Koreans seem fascinated with the plump leader, whose jovial nature is at odds with his country's dour image.

The North Koreans feed their interest, telling visiting South Korean media executives this month that he sleeps four hours a night, prefers French wine over any other and reads fewer newspapers these days because of fading eyesight.

"I would have become a film critic or filmmaker if I had not become a politician," confessed Kim Jong Il, who became leader in 1994 on the death of his father and national founder, Kim Il Sung.

The peacemaking process began in June, when Kim Jong Il met South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at a summit. Before that, South Korean officials said Kim Jong Il's voice had been broadcast only once. In accepting a post as North Korea's military commander in 1991, he said at a rally of army officers: "May glory be with our revolutionary armed forces."

After the summit, South Korean President Kim said he thought his North Korean counterpart seemed sincere about reform.

"(He) was not very logical, but he had an intellectual capacity and sharp judgments," the president said. "He listened to other people and once he was persuaded, he embraced their ideas with boldness. I could talk common sense with him."