- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000


"The danger of war in Korea is over," declared South Korean President Kim Dae-jung triumphantly upon his return home from an historic June summit meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Chairman Kim Jong-il.
The incredible image of the two Kims embracing at the Pyongyang airport at the close of the summit seemed to signal to the world that a new era of reconciliation between the two Koreas had finally begun. However, a sober appraisal of what actually happened at the summit and of the current political situation on the peninsula suggests that hopes of imminent reconciliation and reunification are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, inflated political rhetoric notwithstanding, the path to genuine reconciliation and reunification looks as tortuous and uncertain as ever.
Fundamentally, the summit meeting reflected a convergence of the interests of the leaders of both Koreas. Consider the Joint Declaration issued by the two Koreas at the close of the summit. North Korea agreed to cooperate in reuniting some of the separated families, hold government level talks, to have Kim Jong-il visit Seoul at an "appropriate time." The South Koreans would see all of these promises as vindication of Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy with strong implications in personal and domestic political terms. In return, the South Korean president offered an important concession. He agreed to a provision stating that the two Koreas would pursue joint efforts at reunification "independently," that is without foreign (read: American) interference. But he failed to persuade Chairman Kim to agree to any stipulations concerning peace, tension reduction or confidence-building measures, and did not receive an affirmation of the Basic Agreement of 1992 that included an important declaration of nonaggression between the two Koreas.
In addition, Mr. Kim was the first South Korean president to agree that there are "common denominators" between the South's vision of a confederation of two sovereign states ("yonhap") and the North's vision of a federation or single Korean sovereign state with two regional governments ("yonbang") and to agree to pursue unification toward these objects apparently through an innovative melding of what otherwise would seem to be irreconcilable approaches.
His predecessors' unwillingness to accept the North's formulation had been a key obstacle to the holding of a Korean summit in the past. President Kim also agreed to link the family reunion issue to the repatriation of "unconverted" North Korean prisoners held in the South while omitting any mention of the South Korean prisoners of war and other south Korean nationals held in the North. Finally, President Kim agreed to develop a "balanced" national economy, which commits the South to providing considerable resources to the modernization of the North's infrastructure power stations railroads, harbors. The gains for North Korea certainly appear to outweigh those for the South.
Because of this imbalance, prospects for a full implementation of the Joint Declaration are not great. It is reasonable to expect modest progress on the issue of the separated families, the expansion of exchanges in various fields and the launching of economic cooperation projects on a modest scale. The continued, unilateral provision of economic support without regard to the principle of reciprocity would be difficult to sustain over a long period. No doubt President Kim will do his utmost to deliver what he promised, but he will be confronted with serious domestic obstacles. In addition to financial constraints, there is considerable skepticism and opposition in South Korea to the way the president has conducted his policy toward the North.
To generate enough political support, he would have to demonstrate the efficacy of this policy by citing evidence of meaningful reform in North Korea and a reduction in the level of threat. President Kim requires and to a certain extent can expect political support from the northern Kim in this regard.
Paradoxically, the summit has led to the establishment of a mutually dependent relationship between the two Kims. Their relationship may be likened to what the Koreans call "o wol dong ju," two enemies on board the same boat finding it necessary to work together.
A period of popular tolerance, albeit with a diminishing level of euphoria, may well continue into next year, but a number of factors will militate against the fulfillment of all the commitments of the declaration. Impediments include resource constraints and increasing political and social instability in the South. President Kim will be faced by a power struggle over the next presidential elections and deepening political and social cleavages.
President Kim's North Korean policy will face external constraints as well. The United States and Japan, while being supportive in general terms, have expressed concerns about specific aspects of the agreements made with the North as well as his fundamental policy objectives. Concerns would be heightened if President Kim's conduct of his North Korean policy were seen as adversely affecting a resolution of the issues related to North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
In sum, the path to genuine reconciliation and unification remains ill-defined and problematic. Yet, even a critical assessment of the accomplishments of the summit would have to concede that the two Koreas have taken a meaningful first step toward accommodation.

Young C. Kim is senior counselor at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, The George Washington University and chairman of the American Council on Asian and Pacific Affairs.

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