PYONGYANG: Is the Cold War's last glacier beginning to melt? The summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il raised hopes on both sides of the Korean peninsula that 55 years of hot and cold war may diminish. Because Korea remains the world's most heavily armed flash point and with the risk of nuclear weapons and missile proliferation still high in North Korea, the whole world may benefit from a loosening of tensions. For that to happen, however, more than the two Korean governments must act imaginatively and responsibly.
Kim Dae Jung's visit to North Korea provided Kim Jong Il with a historic opportunity to convey the message that North Korea is breaking out of self-imposed isolation. By shaking hands with and embracing the South Korean president so publicly and so dramatically, Kim Jong Il demonstrated that he was seriously committed to beginning the process of normalizing political and economic relations between the two Koreas. The warmth of his greeting showed the world that North Korea was indeed opening up; and it showed North Korea's own people that their government was going to change -- how is still unclear -- in order to survive in a rapidly globalizing world. Kim Jong Il's actions also projected a new image of himself as a serious and reasonable leader, not the sinister recluse frequently depicted in newspapers.
The two Kims agreed in principle to work toward reunification by making joint efforts "independently" of outside influence, and to find common ground between the South's idea of a North-South "commonwealth" or confederation, and the North's idea of Alow-level federation". They promised to help families separated by the Demilitarized Zone for half-a-century meet and to promote exchanges in various fields including economic cooperation. Regular government to government meetings will tackle these matters.
Although some of this may sound like the normal hot air of goodwill found at the end of all summits, the very public commitments of the two leaders will provide real impetus to move ahead. A real test of how far the process can go, and how quickly, will occur when and if Kim Jong Il actually pays a return visit to Seoul, as he agreed to do "at an appropriate time."
Is Kim Jong Il really signaling a fundamental change? Is he prepared to pull his troops back from the Demilitarized Zone and dismantle the tens of thousands of artillery that are capable of reaching Seoul? Is he ready to maintain today's freeze on developing nuclear weapons and to assure that North Korea does not export, develop, or deploy ballistic missiles? So long as the danger of nuclear and missile proliferation in North Korea remains, the peninsula will remain a potential source of conflict. North and South Korea remain technically at war even now. Against this background, it is premature to talk about withdrawing American troops.
Although these knotty issues remain, they can now be addressed with more confidence because doubt as to who is really in charge in North Korea was put to rest. Kim Jong Il rules in North Korea. His fingerprints are everywhere to be seen, not only in the summit's events, but it now appears clear that he was fully behind the policy of engagement initiated by President Clinton and the Japanese government after North Korea test-fired a medium range ballistic missile in August 1998. By beginning to normalize relations with South Korea, Kim Jong Il gains leverage in his dealings not only with South Korea, but also in negotiations with the US, Japan, China, and Russia.
If this effort is to bear real fruit for him, however, he must continue to transform North Korea's Arogue state" image into that of a normal state. That the US welcomed the steps taken so far was indicated by the Clinton administration's decision to actually implement its previously announced intention to lift trade sanctions on North Korean exports.
So building on the summit is not only a job for the two Kims. The first task facing South Korea's government is to bring the US on board for a policy of increasing "Koreanization" of affairs on the peninsula. Given a rising trend of big power rivalry over Korea in recent years, this may be no straightforward thing. But it is vitally important to decouple the Korean peace process from Sino-American and Russo-American rivalries, particularly on the emerging hot button issues of national missile defense(NMD) and theatre missile defense(TMD) programs that America is contemplating.
China and Russia, too, have been building their stakes in North Korea. Beijing hosted a secret visit by Kim Jong Il at the end of May, perhaps to talk him into hosting the summit as a wedge to replace Washington as the major player on the peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to visit Pyongyang in July in search of support for his objections to America's proposed anti-missile shield. And just as these two Asian land powers cultivate Kim Jong Il, Washington is seeking talks over missiles with Pyongyang and Tokyo is eager to reestablish diplomatic relations with the North.
America and Japan helped push North Korea to talk with South Korea. It is incumbent upon South Korea to keep both governments closely informed of its efforts to secure some control over North-South reconciliation. Because China's role is rising, it is crucial that the US and China restore their strategic dialogue and cooperate by decoupling the North Korean missile issue from the fractious issue of missile defense. The two Kims have moved the Korean peninsula closer to peace than anyone dared hope one week ago. Their efforts must be supported and sustained by the other powers with interests in the Koreas.