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Korea: Summit A Great Start On A Long Road

  • Askold Krushelnycky

This week's meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea has been hailed as a historic breakthrough. Some analysts suggest that reunification of the divided peninsula -- technically at war for more than a half-century -- now seems a realistic, if distant, possibility. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky spoke with Winston Lord, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, to get his assessment of the summit.

Prague, 16 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Few knew what to expect at the long-awaited summit between South Korea's President Kim Dae-Jung and North Korea's Stalinist leader Kim Jong-Il in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

The North, and its reclusive leader, have long had a reputation for eccentricity and nasty behavior, and Kim Dae-Jung could hardly have been sure of what kind of reception he would receive. In the event, however, the South Korean leader received hugs and historic pledges to work towards reconciliation and eventual reunification.

The two leaders also agreed to increase economic ties and continue wide-ranging talks between their governments. They promised to enable family members from different sides of the heavily armed Korean border to visit each other for the first time in 50 years, starting in two months. Kim Jong-Il said he will visit the South at what he called an "appropriate" time.

The United States is South Korea's most important ally, with some 37,000 soldiers bolstering Seoul's own forces on the border, and Washington has watched the summit with keen interest. Winston Lord was U.S. ambassador to China between 1985 and 1989, and assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs from 1993 to 1997. In both roles, he was closely involved in fashioning U.S. policy toward the Koreas. This week he spoke at length with RFE/RL about the summit, which in his view was surprisingly productive:

"Frankly, the meeting went much better than I expected, and it's potentially of tremendous historical significance. But given the track record of North Korea, I do think we have to be cautious and I think we are going to see many ups and downs over the coming months and years. So I don't want to rain on the parade here. It's beyond what I thought was possible, but the devil is in the details, and I think we're going to see how this thing holds up over the coming months."

The two Koreas have been on the verge of breakthroughs before -- with significant accords signed in 1972 and in 1991 -- only to return to bitter political confrontation and occasional violent incursions by northern soldiers. But this time, Lord said, there were differences:

"What is potentially different here is, number one, you have the two leaders -- the top leaders of North and South Korea -- meeting, which has not happened since the war in the 1950s. And, secondly, North Korea [today] is in a much more desperate economic situation [than before], giving it greater incentive to interact with the South. So those two elements -- the imprimatur of the top leaders, particularly important in North Korea, with their dictatorial system -- plus North Korea's urgent needs, give one some hope that this will be more permanently lasting than the previous accords."

The declaration by the two leaders about eventual reunification was perhaps the most dramatic element of this week's accord. But Lord does not believe reunification will occur soon: "On the specific subject of reunification, that's going to be a long-term process -- both because of mutual suspicion and the complex issues involved, and because neither side wants it in the near future. North Korea doesn't want reunification because that implies integration and exposure to the South and its much more advanced political and economic system, that could undermine the regime's control in Pyongyang. And South Korea doesn't want reunification because that would probably result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Koreans pouring over the border and produce a huge economic burden which would dwarf even what went on between the two Germanies. We're talking about a long, step-by-step process towards reunification."

Parallels have been drawn between the two Koreas and the long-divided West and East Germanies. Lord said that many similarities exist between the two cases of countries divided into a democratic, economically advanced half bitterly opposed by a repressive, economically backward mirror reflection.

But he said North Korea does not want quick reunification because it knows that would spell the end of its Stalinist government. And South Korea, he added, is also in no hurry because of the enormous costs and social upheaval unification would entail:

"I think there are some valid comparisons between the Korean situation and the two Germanies. [In Korea,] you have two entities recognized in the international arena, as you did with the two Germanies. You have historic territorial, ethnic and cultural unity. In the backdrop, you also have two opposing systems -- West Germany and South Korea being democratic and very advanced economically, whereas East Germany and North Korea [underwent] serious economic difficulties and [had] very repressive regimes. So I think there's a great deal of comparability. However, North Korea is in much worse shape than even East Germany was when the two Germanies reunited. Therefore, the economic burden on South Korea of any reunification would be even more overwhelming than what was, after all, a major adjustment for West Germany."

Lord also said the U.S. has reason to be pleased that the summit took place and went well:

"There are a lot of interesting implications for the United States in the new movement between North and South Korea. First, the best news is that the North and South are talking to each other directly. For decades, North Korea -- despite its greatly inferior economic and other positions -- has tried to go around South Korea, treat it as a puppet and deal directly with the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. And we [Americans] have always insisted that, to resolve the problem on the peninsula, [the North] must talk to the South directly. This has finally happened -- it's extremely important."

For years, the U.S. and other Western countries have been concerned with North Korea's threats to develop a nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang's experiments with long-range missiles are one of the main reasons Washington is proposing to create a new and controversial defense system against missiles launched by rogue states. Lord commented:

"Obviously, if North and South Korea make significant progress over time, it's going to raise some questions. North Korea will raise questions of the U.S. troops' presence -- which I believe are very necessary in the region even beyond the Korean issue, and should be there after the Korean issue [is resolved], even though maybe reconfigured somewhat. And it's important that South Korea press more directly some of the military issues, like North Korea's nuclear program and its missile program. I understand why President Kim of South Korea didn't wish to raise this in the early going [stages], except obliquely, but at some point we've got to reduce the military tensions on the peninsula."

Lord believes that other countries, including the U.S., will have to be involved in the Korean reconciliation process and resolving the nuclear issues:

"Certainly, the progress between North and South Korea ought to help in other matters, including military issues. It reinforces economic interactions with the South which are already there for the construction of nuclear reactors [that] are less dangerous for proliferation. It reinforces North Korea's incentive to live by its agreements both on the nuclear freeze and on the missile-testing freeze. It does raise the interesting question of how high on the agenda the nuclear issues will be between South and North, and how much will be left to the U.S. to continue to press. So it's important that the U.S. and Japan in particular -- as well as China and Russia -- stay in close touch and reinforce the process between North and South Korea."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il visited China, one of the few countries which supports his regime, shortly before the summit, a demonstration of how closely the two communist states cooperate. The former U.S. ambassador to China believes China has a key role to play if the new relations between the two Koreas are to develop positively:

"China is very clearly pleased with the summit and the breakthrough between North and South relations. They have been helpful on this issue previously because it's in their own national interest -- that's the only reason China acts, in any event. What China wants is no tension on the peninsula. They want to have good economic relations with South Korea, which are growing, without losing their ideological ally in North Korea and without losing a socialist buffer state in North Korea between the South and China's border. So China doesn't want early reunification, but it does want a reduction of tensions, And also by playing a significant role here, it does get credit around the world for being a constructive international player."

Lord and others believe South Korea will certainly try to follow up this week's meeting with more initiatives to advance the reconciliation process. But most agree that the real indication whether the summit was the beginning of an entirely new phase in relations between the two long-time foes, or simply another false start, will be the actions of the notoriously unpredictable northern regime.