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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Yonhap -- AFP
In June, all eyes will be on Pyongyang as South Korea's Kim Dae Jung, above, meets North Korea's reclusive and unpredictable Kim Jong Il

Korea: Preparing To Meet
The first-ever summit between Seoul and Pyongyang may well lead to peace, even reunification. It could also have profound ramifications for the geopolitical balance

PLUS: How the numbers stack up

The reception could not have been warmer -- or more emotional. On May 26, a group of children performers from North Korea were staging a sold-out show at the Seoul Arts Center as part of their goodwill visit to the South. When they started singing "Glad to Meet You," nearly 2,000 audience members rose to their feet. Some openly wept, while others tried to sing along in emotion-choked voices. "Look at these young children," sniffed Kim Hyun Sook, a 78-year-old Pyongyang native. "They are like my own when I left them back in North Korea in 1950."

Expect more such emotional outpourings. South Koreans are officially in the grips of Northern fever. With the historic June 12-14 summit drawing closer, the Southerners have been hankering for all things North Korean. Arriving on the heels of the children's troupe is the famed Pyongyang Circus, which is in town for a two-week tour. A North Korean movie has been given the green light to be shown in local cinemas in July, while an album of North Korean pop songs was to be released on June 1. North Korean products are selling briskly in department stores, even though only a limited selection of items are available. That the visiting performers had to travel via Beijing to reach Seoul acts as a reminder of present realities, but the atmosphere is a far cry from just a few years ago, when even raising the idea of North Korean cultural imports was liable to land you in jail.

If ordinary South Koreans are giddy about the impending summit, then those in President Kim Dae Jung's administration are doubly so. After all, they pulled off a coup in getting North Korea's reclusive Kim Jong Il to agree to a meeting in Pyongyang -- something they attribute to the conciliatory approach that "DJ" has consistently applied to the North. "It will be a time for rejoicing," President Kim pronounced recently. "Now we must also achieve reconciliation and cooperation and bring peace to the Korean peninsula."

Indications are that Pyongyang too is greeting the summit with some amount of anticipation. According to one senior government official in Seoul, "North Korea is promoting the summit in Pyongyang and in other provinces. This indicates that Kim Jong Il is taking this meeting seriously and intends to deliver good results to his people." In a subtle hint of conciliation, North Korea recently took down a propaganda sign at the heavily fortified border and replaced it with one that simply said: "Oppose fratricidal conflict." Says South Korea's Unification Minister Park Jae Kyu: "We are confident that the summit will be successful."

That is surely everyone's hope, but the jury is still out on how the event will turn out. "The success of the summit meeting will depend on what the two leaders choose to discuss," says Lee Ki Taek, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. Analysts believe the two sides may have fixed their agenda in secret negotiations, but outwardly neither has gone beyond announcing that the discussions will be based on "self-reliance, peace and national unity." This vaguely worded formulation reflects the desire by both parties to make sure the summit happens. Seoul had initially wanted more specifics, but neither side apparently wanted to get into a possible wrangle over the details and risk derailing the whole process. Observers expect the two leaders to formally focus on what they can agree upon and touch on sensitive matters informally.

At the top of the agenda are likely to be economic matters. North Korea needs cash to bolster its failing economy, and Kim Jong Il knows international aid will dry up once the famine is over. South Korea is eager not only to provide humanitarian aid, but to help build the North's infrastructure. Seoul has already said that it would send 600,000 tons of fertilizer; sources also say that the government has promised as much as $500 million within this year. If relations are normalized, total South Korean investments in the North could reach between $1 billion and $3 billion in the next five years. Estimates for the total cost of reunification range from hundreds of billion to a few trillion dollars.

Other topics likely to be discussed include the reunion of divided families, further cultural and sports exchanges, and steps leading up to eventual reunification. For Pyongyang, the talks represent a chance not only to solicit more aid from the South but to further open up to the world. In recent months, it has been on a diplomatic offensive to reach out to countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and South America. "You get the idea that their behavior is beginning to change," says Larry Wortzel, director of the Asian Studies Center at Washington's Heritage Foundation.

So far so good. But matters pertaining to the Korean peninsula are rarely simple and straightforward. Kim Dae Jung would like to make the summit a Korea-only "family" affair, limiting the agenda to relatively non-contentious bilateral issues. But he has been under pressure to broach more sensitive topics, with Washington and Tokyo asking him to raise the matter of the North's nuclear and missile programs.

U.S. concerns are based on suspicions that Pyongyang is reneging on its promise to stop its nuclear research. James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and China, says that it may be time to review the 1994 accord in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear-arms program in return for two light-water reactors and 500,000 tons of diesel oil. There have been suspicions that Pyongyang is operating a secret nuclear-weapons laboratory near Kumchangri in the northwest, though a recent inspection by an American team found nothing unusual.

South Korea, however, has not exactly been eager to raise the nuclear issue -- or anything else that might drive Kim Jong Il away from the table -- and this has been a source of tension between the allies. Things came to a head on May 12 during three-way talks in Tokyo between South Korea, Japan and the U.S. According to former National Security Council member Douglas Paal, U.S. envoys Wendy Sherman and Charles Kartman "left the meeting feeling South Korea was not taking [American] concerns as seriously as they wanted." Wortzel thinks Seoul's response is to be expected. "If I were Kim Dae Jung, I wouldn't want to be seen as carrying the water for the U.S.," he says.

South Korean and U.S. officials deny there is a rift between the two countries. Paal says that things were patched up after the May 12 meeting, and both the U.S. and Japan have stressed that they fully support Kim Dae Jung's summit endeavors. After meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro in Seoul on May 29, Kim indicated that he could address the nuclear issue: "The Japanese concern and other international issues can also be discussed." Still, a nagging sense of discord remains, and sources say Kim will try to meet and "soothe" U.S. President Bill Clinton when they attend the funeral of the late Japanese PM Obuchi Keizo on June 8.

Whether or not there is a chill in Seoul-Washington relations, the summit and its aftermath may very well change the dynamics of the region's geopolitical balance. Should North-South relations continue to improve, the subsequent reduction in tensions, not to mention the rise in nationalist sentiments, will make the future of U.S. forces in South Korea increasingly uncertain. Already, resentment has been bubbling up against the troops, sparked by the accidental bombing of a village by U.S. aircraft and the death of a bar hostess at the hands of an American serviceman. There have been angry protests against the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the legal protection of U.S. soldiers and, in the eyes of locals, allows them to literally get away with murder.

How the Numbers Stack Up
  (1997 figures) (1999 figures)
Population 23.8m. 46.8m.
GDP per capita $741 $8,581
GDP growth -6.80% 10.70%
Total Trade $2.18b. $263.3b.
Exports $910m. $143.6b.
Imports $1.27m. $119.7b.
Foreign debt $11.1m. $136.6b.
Sources: Bank of Korea, National Statistical Office

Wortzel points out that greater democracy in South Korea now means that the electorate has a stronger voice -- and some of that voice will be anti-American. "The relationship [between South Korea and the U.S.] has changed and many American policymakers may not have realized that," he says. "They're going to have to adjust to the fact that they have to deal with a political leadership that has to respond to voters."

Tokyo may also have to rethink its position vis-เ-vis the Koreas. Izumi Hajime, professor of international affairs at the University of Shizuoka, notes that Japan has always based its Korea policy on the assumption of a divided peninsula. But, he says, as the North and South adjust their relationship, it is time Tokyo re-examined that policy and redefined the roles of Japan and Korea in the international context.

In the meantime, Beijing has been working to expand its diplomatic influence in the peninsula, which is of vital strategic interest to China (as well as Russia, Japan and the U.S.). Beijing has followed a policy of maintaining friendly relations with the North while strengthening economic ties with the South. China's ultimate interest, says one analyst, is to convince North Korea to reconcile with South Korea and sign a peace treaty. Such a development would end the 1953 armistice agreement, which brought the Korean War to a close, and accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula -- a scenario that Beijing would love to see. "The Chinese are very eager to see the summit go well, because they thought North Korea was moving too quickly toward the U.S.," says Paal. "They would like to see the North more dependent on South Korea."

Although South Korean officials in Beijing deny it, sources say China has been instrumental in bringing the two Koreas together for the summit. Unconfirmed reports have said that Zhao Nanqi, a former Chinese general of Korean descent, was in Pyongyang in early March, shortly before the summit breakthrough. Kim Jong Il visited the Chinese embassy, where Zhao reportedly advised him to hold talks with Seoul. The following month, Zhao visited South Korea and met President Kim. Recently, there were also strong rumors that Kim Jong Il made a secret visit to China from May 29 to 31 to meet President Jiang Zemin. Beijing officials neither confirmed nor denied the report.

China's growing assertiveness in Korea would naturally be of concern to Japan and the U.S. "Korea is a bulwark against Chinese expansion, and an increase in Chinese influence in the Korean peninsula will be a matter of concern to Tokyo," says a Korean security analyst. According to a Western diplomat in Seoul, what worries Tokyo and Washington is that China and Russia could use their traditional friendship with North Korea to try to draw a new security axis in the peninsula.

For most ordinary Koreans, though, such geopolitical considerations are far from their thoughts, as is the reality of the cost of helping the North. And never mind that the summit may turn out to be a purely symbolic event. As they bask in the rare warmth of the current North-South d้tente, what matters to them, for now, is that they are one small step closer to reuniting with their long-lost brethren.

With reporting by Samuel Gilston/Washington, Murakami Mutsuko/Tokyo and Paul Mooney/Beijing

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