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Western Press Review: Korea's Historic Summit

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 13 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- History was made today on East Asia's Korean peninsula. A half-century after their countries began a bloody three-year war, the leaders of North Korea -- the world's last Stalinist state -- and the Western-oriented South Korea began three days of talks in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Western press commentary assesses the probable impact of this first-ever summit meeting between the two long-time adversaries on broad international developments as well as on relations between the two countries.


The Irish Times says that the Pyongyang meeting "seems assured of success in opening up relations between the two states, officially frozen since the end of the 1950 to 1953 war. The summit agenda," its editorial notes, "includes economic aid for the North, cultural and sporting exchanges, reuniting divided families and relaxation of the tense security confrontation involving 1 million troops and one of the world's most formidable armory of weapons."

The editorial goes on: "North Korea's readiness to open up relations with the South came as a surprise in recent months. Its leadership," it says, "has evidently concluded that the policy of strict isolation from the outside world can no longer be sustained if their regime is to survive. It is threatened by famine, dire shortages of consumer goods, and an inability to pay for necessary imports."

Therefore, the paper argues, North Korea's leaders have decided to risk a carefully controlled opening-up to outside influences and contacts that might very well eventually undermine their system. "They assume," the editorial says, "that South Korea and other states will be prepared to extend substantial aid and investment precisely in order to head off threats that it might collapse precipitously in East German fashion." The paper calls this "a shrewd approach, given that the prospect of such an involuntary reunification fills most South Koreans with dread. Despite decades of propaganda about the desirability of unity," the editorial notes, "[South Korean] citizens have grown very much apart from the closed and backward Stalinist regime."


For the New York Times, this week's meetings between South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il mark what it calls "an encouraging change" in the relationship between the two Koreas. The paper's editorial goes on to say: "In the 55 years since the Korean peninsula was divided after World War Two, the North has directed invasion, infiltration and terrorism against the South and both sides have employed vitriolic propaganda against each other. Now, for the first time, the top leaders on each side are getting together to discuss mutual concerns."

What has moved them to do so, says the paper, "is a combination of severe economic and social strains in the North, including serious famine and energy shortages, and a new recognition by the South that its own security would be endangered by a sudden breakdown of authority in North Korea." It warns, however, that because the Pyongyang government remains what it describes as "one of the world's most opaque and unpredictable, [expectations] for specific agreements coming out of the meetings should not be set too high."

North Korea, the editorial continues, "has recently been seeking to broaden its diplomatic contacts around the world. It has worked to upgrade its relations with Europe and Japan as well as South Korea and the United States. Last month, Kim Jong Il met China's leaders in Beijing. Next month, Vladimir Putin is scheduled to become the first top Russian leader ever to visit Pyongyang." The paper concludes on an optimistic note: "As North Korea begins to reach out from its self-imposed isolation, there are grounds for hoping that one day it may no longer need to be treated as a dangerous rogue state."


The U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor believes that, "even if [the two sides only] agree to open mail service for divided families, this first-ever Korean summit will have been a triumph of hope over despair." The paper's editorial says: "Reuniting the Koreas seems unlikely for now. The South is not eager to bear the costs -- two years of its economic output -- to bring the North up to its living standards. And the South rightly worries that any support for the North might go to the military."

"But over the past year," the paper notes, "the North has sought new friends, and may be embracing China's style of reform. Both China and Russia are nudging it to change -- mainly to stop the U.S. from using the [North Korean] missile threat as an excuse to build its defense shields." It sums up: "This summit will be a pivotal test to see if the trust in a new North Korea can be reciprocated."


Under the heading "Kim Meets Kim," an editorial in Britain's Financial Times says the Pyongyang summit offers a historic opportunity. "The North Korean regime is loathsome indeed," the paper says, "but gradual, peaceful change is far better than an explosion of violence and anarchy. North Korea needs to be encouraged further into the open, but it will only respond if it feels comfortable with, not threatened by, the process."

The editorial also finds it encouraging that, although the summit is a bilateral affair, both China and Russia are being brought into a broader framework. It says: "North Korea understandably sees the might of the U.S. forces massed in South Korea as a threat. China and Russia may yet prove helpful in providing some form of guarantees that would protect North Korea from being swallowed whole by its southern neighbor."

Finally, the Financial Times says, "no agreement to defuse tension is likely to work unless it has the support of all the main interested parties: the U.S., China, Russia and Japan all have a role to play. But for this to be possible," it adds, "North Korea must also back away from the long-range missile development that threatens both Japan and the U.S. [It] will be hard for North Korea to give up this trump card," the paper sums up, "but, if it does, help for this beleaguered country could really start to flow."


The International Herald Tribune carries two commentaries on the Korean summit. Writing from Kuala Lumpur, analyst Ralph Cossa is unsure, in his words, "whether Pyongyang's willingness to reach out to the South is a shift in tactics or signals a more fundamental change of thinking." He cites a number of possible agreements that would, he believes, show what he calls "commitment to genuine rapprochement."

Among the possibilities Cossa mentions are "an early reciprocal visit by North Korea's Kim Jong Il to Seoul; a joint undertaking to develop meaningful confidence-building measures to reduce tension on the peninsula; serious discussion of first steps toward mutual and balanced military force reductions -- if not nationwide then at least in the immediate vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone [between the two states]; and carrying out the long-delayed program to reunite divided families."

Cossa says further: "Kim Jong Il's recent visit to Beijing was almost certainly summit-related. He has said that China's policy of 'opening up to the outside world is correct.' This could indicate," the analyst argues, "the North's readiness to try a similar policy, although it would be more limited and tightly controlled." He concludes: "For 'socialism with North Korean characteristics' to be successful, foreign economic investment and assistance will be required. South Korea is the most logical source. This, combined with the need to keep the current generous flow of foreign aid flowing in, may explain Kim Jong Il's willingness to court the South."


The second commentary in the International Herald Tribune is by Asian historian John Kotch, who writes from Seoul. Kotch recalls that -- after the division of the peninsula in 1948 but before the creation of separate states -- South Korean leaders traveled to Pyongyang to meet Kim Il Sung and other Northern leaders. "Kim Il Sung," he notes, "is the late father of Kim Jong Il, whom South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is [meeting] this week."

Kotch also says that the 1948 conference -- not a formal summit -- came after Russian and U.S. forces had largely withdrawn from Korea. He writes: "The time appeared ripe for compromise and cooperation. Yet the conference fell victim to homegrown political and ideological rivalry. The goal of democracy through a general election and a North-South coalition government was derailed in a conference run like a Communist Party plenum, without free debate and discussion."

In Pyongyang this week, Kotch adds, "Kim Jong Il [is stepping] into his father's shoes for the first time. But," the historian concludes, "he will face a South Korea incomparably stronger and more prosperous than the economically weak and politically paralyzed country of 1948."


In an editorial entitled "the Stalinist Dinosaur," the French daily Liberation calls North Korea's leaders "the managers of Stalinism's Jurassic Park, the [dangerous] orphans of the Soviet system who are treated with caution even by their Chinese neighbors." Pyongyang's leadership, the paper says, "is above all the victim of its own sectarian madness, with a record of failures and crimes that have reduced the country's enslaved population to endemic famine, sacrificing the country's last resources to attain the rank of a nuclear power."

Under such conditions, the editorial continues, "it's easy to understand why the prospect of the kind of reunification achieved by Germany [10 years ago] seems highly unlikely to a large majority of South Koreans. In any case," the paper says, "that's not the aim of the Pyongyang summit." Rather, it sums ups, "Kim Jong Il will try to obtain at the best possible price what he needs to continue his tight hold over his 20 million subjects."