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Moonies step into Kim's world

SOUTH KOREA yesterday tried to stamp on a bizarre connection that has grown up over the years between the Unification Church - known in the West as the Moonies - and the secretive North Korean regime, after the publisher of a Moonie-affiliated newspaper returned from a trip to Pyongyang where he had a rare interview with Kim Jong Il, the country's designated leader.

The government in Seoul said Pak Bo Hi could no longer publish the Segye Times, the Moonies' daily paper in South Korea, and that if he returned to Seoul he would face 'investigation' and possible imprisonment for violating national security laws which ban private citizens from visiting North Korea without official permission.

Mr Pak arrived in Peking last weekend after an 11-day trip to Pyongyang, where he attended mourning ceremonies for the late Kim Il Sung, and subsequently had a nearly hour-long interview with his son, Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim, who is not known to have given any interviews to the media before, told Mr Pak that he favoured a non-confrontational policy with the United States, and wanted to have a summit with President Bill Clinton. 'He is not the mad maniac or psycho Western intelligence portrays him to be,' said Antonio Betancourt, another Unification Church member who accompanied Mr Pak on his trip to Pyongyang.

But Seoul, infuriated that Mr Pak defied their ban on Koreans visiting Pyongyang for the funeral of Kim Il Sung, showed little interest in what Mr Pak might have learnt about Kim Jong Il. Instead the Information Ministry told the Segye Times that it would have to find a new publisher, and indicated that prosecutors would be waiting for Mr Pak at the airport if he attempted to fly into Seoul.

It is not the first time that the Unification Church has defied the South Korean government over North Korea. Headed by the Rev Sun Myung Moon, the Moonies elsewhere in the world have normally pursued a strong anti-Communist line. The church publishes the conservative Washington Times newspaper in the US, and in South Korea controls the Tongil Group, a large business empire with stakes in publishing, private schools, soft drinks, property and heavy machine manufacturing.

But Mr Moon, 73, has a weak spot for North Korea: he was born there, and was imprisoned in North Korea in 1949 by Kim Il Sung in the early days of the Communist regime, only to be rescued by the Americans when they swept north in the first phase of the Korean War in 1950.

He went on to combine shrewd business sense with a charismatic, proselytising religious persona to produce a multi-national enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In December 1991, during a rare period of detente between the two Koreas, Mr Moon made an unexpected visit to Pyongyang, where he was granted an audience with Kim Il Sung. Although Pyongyang had previously criticised the conservative, capitalist Moonies, they apparently thought they might use Mr Moon just as the Kremlin had once used the arch- capitalist, Armand Hammer, to broker its relations with the West. Mr Moon, for his part, promised millions of dollars of investment in tourism and other projects - none of which have materialised.

(Photograph omitted)