SEOUL Leaders of South and North Korea signed a historic agreement in the communist capital of Pyongyang yesterday that calls for the hostile neighbors to begin liquidating five decades of war and confrontation.
After three days of talks marked by a geniality that surprised many observers, the leaders of the long-separated nations pledged to take small steps immediately to remove barriers and to work ultimately to realize the dream of a united Korea.
They agreed that by Aug. 15 they would allow families from both sides of the Demilitarized Zone to cross over for long-awaited reunions. Aug. 15 marks the anniversary on which the peninsula achieved independence from Japan in 1945.
Perhaps the strongest signal that the two sides had reached a meeting of the minds, no matter how limited, was the promise of Kim Jong-il to reciprocate the South Korean leader’s initiative by visiting Seoul at “an appropriate time.”
In a seven-paragraph agreement, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pledged to “join hands in efforts to resolve the issue of national unification independently.”
The word “independently” apparently referred to plans produced in the past by both sides on how reunification should proceed.
South Korea has suggested that the two rivals begin moving toward a confederation, maintaining clearly separate entities that would be linked loosely.
The North has proposed a more closely linked federation and has even proposed a new name, Koryo. Koryo was a 10th century state that dominated the peninsula from its capital in the North.
Yesterday’s agreement called these two plans “different formulas that the North and South favor for reunification” and added that they have “common factors,” enabling the two sides to “work together to achieve this goal.”
Beneath the surface harmony of the occasion, intractable problems remain, which were untouched, at least publicly.
As a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, 37,000 U.S. troops stand guard just south of the DMZ against an invasion from the North like the one on June 25, 1950.
Although that is the principal reason for the U.S. troop presence, the United States has often defended the stationing of these forces, and another 50,000 in Japan, as a contributor to East Asian stability.
Another element of divisiveness, also untouched publicly, is the effort of North Korea to achieve nuclear weapons capability and the missiles to deliver them.
The United States, Japan and South Korea are all opposed on grounds of nuclear proliferation, and more precisely because of the threat they pose to all concerned.
In addition to its missile development programs, which it sees as a deterrent, North Korea, starved for funds to fight famine and saddled with an unproductive economy, has sold missiles to states that the United States regards as hostile.
Perhaps most important, any progress toward unification would have to confront the question of how to mesh two different economic and social systems, one communist and invoking juche, or self-reliance, as a cardinal principle, the other export-oriented.
As host, North Korea created a Potemkin village-like atmosphere, restricting press activities and even agenda information until events happened.
Only a 50-member South Korean press entourage was allowed into the North, and foreign correspondents had to “cover” the events from a Seoul press center through guarded briefings and a single television feed from the North.
The exception was that Russian, Chinese and pro-North Korean, Japan-based journalists were allowed at the summit scene.
Klauss Scherer, East Asia bureau chief for ARD German television, complained that he couldn’t even find out who was hosting the dinner to be given in Pyongyang.
“I understand the difficulty since the South accepted the North’s rules on this.”
“If we were in Pyongyang, we would have written different stories,” said Edward A. Gargan, Asia bureau chief for Newsday.
“My biggest complaint is that I want to be in Pyongyang. It is ridiculous to write a story by remote control and by watching local television.”
The accord also called for the two Koreas to increase economic cooperation to bring about a balanced economy.
Apart from the summit itself, there were no direct rewards for the United States and Japan.
Kim Dae-jung, however, was handed a political triumph by the North’s agreement on his pet project, the reunion of families separated by the Korean War.
An important question in the summit aftermath is: Can the positive glow continue?
Kim Dae-jung has recalled North-South accords of 1972 and 1991 that ended in smiles but soon ran aground on familiar obstacles. There are no guarantees, and Pyongyang’s true intentions are as murky as ever.
“Now it is important that we put our agreements into practice,” the South Korean president said yesterday in Pyongyang.
The summit ends today and Kim Dae-jung will return to Seoul, traveling by car through battlefields, undoubtedly to a hero’s welcome.
His trip has managed to lull some political infighting at home. He is scheduled to brief Grand National Party President Lee Hoi-chang, his political opponent, when the two meet Saturday.
Gus Constantine contributed to this report from Washington.