- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

SEOUL — Senior North Korean officials exchanged pleasantries with Seoul lawmakers during a visit to the National Assembly yesterday in the latest in a series of unprecedented events that have wowed South Koreans.

As the first such meeting since separate states were established on the peninsula in 1948, the meeting opened the possibility of a new channel for dialogue between the two governments.

When a South Korean lawmaker lamented the lack of any such channel, an official of the North replied, “As a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly, I think there is something we must be ashamed of,” the South’s Yonhap news wire reported.

Among the 11 North Koreans who visited the legislature were Kim Ki-nam, a secretary of the North’s Workers’ Party, and Lim Dong-ok, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Both are believed to be key figures in formulating Pyongyang’s policies toward Seoul.

But pool reporters who covered the meeting said the talks consisted mainly of polite greetings and that the 11 North Koreans declined to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program — the subject of intense negotiations involving the two Koreas and four other countries.

The North Koreans are part of a 182-member delegation that arrived on Sunday for joint celebrations of the 60th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

The delegates have visited graves of activists who died fighting for Korean independence and a North-South soccer match that ended in a 3-0 victory for the South. On Monday, a videoconference brought together 40 divided families from North and South.

Delegates also visited ex-President Kim Dae-jung, the architect of inter-Korean rapprochement, who is hospitalized with pneumonia. They reportedly invited him to revisit Pyongyang.

They are scheduled to lunch with President Roh Moo-hyun before returning home amid speculation whether they will deliver a message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Given the often-glacial movement of relations between the two Koreas, the visit has been rated positively here. However, apart from a joint statement abhorring Japanese militarism, little of substance appears to have been discussed.

“Liberation Day has customarily been a high point for contact with North Korea, [but] in the past, when close contact was made, action did not follow,” said Park Jin, an opposition lawmaker. “We have a duality in our relationship with North Korea — national security versus national integration. I hope the assembly will maintain realistic expectations.”

Other observers were more cynical.

“Until there is a fundamental power shift in North Korea, I don’t think these kinds of events are much to get excited about,” said Michael Breen, the Seoul-based author of a biography of Kim Jong-il.

Since the 2000 summit between then-President Kim Dae-jung and the North’s Kim Jong-il, South Koreans have clung to hopes of better relations. Even after it was revealed that Seoul paid the North $500,000 to go ahead with the summit, there has been broad agreement that rapprochement efforts cannot be abandoned.

Reconciliation efforts have survived naval clashes between the two Koreas and the current nuclear crisis. Inter-Korean projects, notably tours to the North’s Mt. Kumgang range and joint manufacturing at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North, have continued despite tensions.

A Korean War-era movie that opened this month in South Korea illustrates current thinking.

“Welcome to Dongkmak Village” portrays soldiers from the two sides arriving at an isolated village where a U.S. pilot has crashed, and putting aside their differences. The film garnered 3 million viewers in its 10 days — a huge take in a nation of 48 million.

With both Koreas and the United States engaged in the tortuous negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the film’s symbolism is inescapable.

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