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For N. and S. Korea, summit's end is just the beginning

The agreement signed June 14 includes Kim Jong Il's promise to make a trip south.

Now comes the tricky part.

They had hardly been in each other's presence for 48 hours when the leaders of North and South Korea signed an agreement to end a half century of enmity that tore family from family.

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The road to reunification, however, promises no short cuts. It's a 55-minute plane ride from Pyongyang to Seoul, but it took as many years to reach this week's accord. And even the flight - twice as long since the South Korean delegation flew around forbidden skies and the world's most militarized divide - shows how much is left to be covered.

"It's a kind of intermediate road map," says Park Jong-Chul of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government funded think tank in Seoul. "We don't know what kind of hindrances may be in the path."

What will merit a page in the history books is the line in the agreement promising to move toward a confederation of the two countries. But what that word means to either side could differ substantially. The summit - though at times an emotional event - is more like a strategic rolling up of sleeves.

The North-South Joint Declaration states that "for the achievement of unification" the leaders share some common ground between the South's concept of confederation and the North's "formula for a loose form of confederation." Fine-tuning that gap will be perhaps the greatest challenge as both sides strive to show that, unlike earlier rapprochement deals in 1972 and 1991, this one is for real.

President Kim Dae Jung, in a triumphant speech upon his return to the South Korean capital, promised that it was. "What used to be a South Korean economy will be extended into the peninsula and will bring benefits to North and South."

Kim preempted criticism that the agreement is short on specifics and glossed over the concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "I'm not saying everything worked out very well. This is just the beginning," Kim said.

Simpler matters are presumed to be issues like family reunification, which took place even during the summit itself. Several members of the delegation were reunited with family - uncles with nephews they had never met - after the agreement was signed late Wednesday. The pact sets Aug. 15, Liberation Day, as a target for visitor exchanges.

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But how far off reunification should be, under whose terms, and whether anyone is really ready to talk about one fully-integrated Korea are questions that could make implementation of the deal far more complex. "Although they use the same language, the connotations and interpretations are very different," says Mr. Park.

The North Koreans, analysts say, may interpret wording that calls for "independent" unification as a nod to its demand to withdraw US troops from the peninsula, who now number 37,000, and to dissolve the three-way coordination bloc that has monitored North Korea from Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo.

But how does a communist system with crusty dogma promising "to each according to his needs" team up with one whose motto might be "to each his own cellular phone?" A hybrid may take form: Do not overthrow the system or deprogram North Korea's scrappy, state-run economy, but allow big South Korean business to do the work of peace. Such an approach pleases many fiscal conservatives and South Koreans worried about "absorbing" their poor Northern cousins, la German reunification.

But a deal that keeps North Korea in business was not exactly the game plan in Washington, where Kim Jung Il and his father held a special place in the international rogue's gallery. The man deemed world's oddest leader has morphed himself overnight "from stubborn heathen to a very nice uncle," in the words of one South Korean lawmaker.

US officials insist that American forces on the peninsula are not a concern in the short term because the underpinning of President Kim's "sunshine policy" of engagement is deterrence, primarily in the form of US military backing. And if Washington can take the new Kim Jung Il at face value, there is reason to believe he will cooperate in reducing the threat of nuclear confrontation.

"We have to deal with North Korea as it is, and not as we wish it to be," says a US diplomat.

"The world is changing and they are adjusting," says National Assembly member Jung Jey-moon. North Korea "can change their foreign policy and keep their system, and they'll eventually move toward capitalism and a free democratic system."

Or, perhaps, the former without the latter, following in China's tracks. If that is the case, Washington is not likely to want to start rearranging its Asian troop lineup anytime soon.

*Staff writer Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society