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Building on the Kim/Kim Summit

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."