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June 30, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 25 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Editorial: Korea's Triumph
The summit was a step toward peace, but the road remains arduous

When it was announced two months ago, the summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il drew much skepticism. But when the rivals turned their historic meeting last week into a virtual love-fest, euphoria replaced doubt. "As in the case of the Berlin Wall's collapse, the [North-South] agreement is a major change toward peace," exclaimed Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro. One almost expected to see people on both sides storming the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries and dismantling the barbed wire.

Both jaded skepticism and wild euphoria are off the mark, though. The warm reception that Kim Dae Jung received in Pyongyang refuted those who wondered whether the summit would come off, or if it could accomplish anything. The Korean confrontation is Asia's last and most vexing Cold War legacy, so some euphoria over a successful summit is justified. A key step has been taken toward peace on the tinderbox peninsula. Yet the road ahead remains long and tortuous.

The Kims wisely limited their agenda to the easier issues, on which progress could realistically be made -- family reunions, swapping political prisoners, and economic and cultural exchanges. They are real achievements, nonetheless. Though small in numbers, the reunions are intensely meaningful to the millions? of Koreans with long-separated kin on the other side of the border. And Kim Jong Il's high-profile amiability has made it politically much easier for South Korea's leader to channel more aid into the North's faltering economy.

During his three days in Pyongyang, Kim Dae Jung was accorded honors befitting a head of state. That is significant, given that the two Koreas remain technically at war. Another important achievement was the agreement that Kim Jong Il would pay a reciprocal visit to Seoul (though the time is unspecified). This is crucial in maintaining the positive momentum from last week's summit. By the time of the return trip, the two sides may be in position to make further progress.

The United States found itself in the unusual position of being on the sidelines looking in. Suspicions linger in Washington about whether North Korea is proceeding stealthily with its nuclear-weapons program. Kim Dae Jung urged Kim Jong Il to allay such fears. That is important, as one of the hottest topics in the U.S. these days is its proposed missile-defense system, with North Korea portrayed as a chief threat and rationale for the program. The issue has political implications not only in Asia, but also in Russia and Europe.

In fact, the Korean summit portends a reshuffling of the international calculus in Northeast Asia. If the North-South détente flowers, that would remove the main need for the 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea. They are there, after all, to deter a Northern invasion. Kim Dae Jung has made it clear that he is not averse to an eventual U.S. withdrawal -- something Pyongyang has long demanded. But for that to happen, North Korea would have to prove it is no longer a military threat.

A corollary of the summit is the rise in Chinese influence on Korean affairs. Amid rumors that Beijing helped broker the meeting, Kim Jong Il's surprise visit to China on its eve reaffirmed that country's position as North Korea's closest friend and adviser -- which had been in doubt recently. At the same time, Beijing has nurtured solid relations with Seoul. That makes it the only big power with friendly ties to both Koreas.

Whether the summit's promise ultimately bears fruit depends in large part on Kim Jong Il. Is he really serious about reforming his country and opening it up to South Korea and the world? Recent signs have been hopeful, ranging from Pyongyang's diplomatic offensive to Kim Jong Il's trip to Beijing, where he reportedly queried Chinese leaders extensively about how "one country, two systems" works. That implies an interest in how the two Koreas, with their vastly different conditions, can co-exist and cooperate peacefully.

With their summit, the Kims may have clinched this year's Nobel Peace Prize. It is hard to imagine who can top their performance last week. The prize would be a richly deserved accolade for Kim Dae Jung, who has doggedly planned and worked toward peace in the Korean peninsula the way other leaders in history have plotted conquests. Kudos, too, for Kim Jong Il, who has shown unexpected political courage in accepting the challenges of change, not to mention a masterful sense of timing. Even so, many will bristle at the thought of the Nobel going to someone they consider a terrorist.

The ultimate consequences of the summit remain hard to foresee. For all its promise, there are plenty of reasons the major powers will not want to see a reunified Korea (it may emerge as a strong rival). And a relatively quick absorption of the impoverished North could bankrupt South Korea. Indeed, no one knows what will flow from stepped-up contacts, even such seemingly innocuous ones as family visits. The Berlin Wall analogy is not impossible. To forestall the disaster scenarios while keeping détente on track, both sides will need to show extraordinarily deft political leadership.

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