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One amazing year for the Korean Peninsula

By Sohn Jie-Ae
CNN Seoul Bureau Chief

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

A mixed bag of results

Personal borders, political overtones

Timing sensitivities


SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- The Korean Peninsula has seen more changes in the past year than it had seen in the past half-century.

Consider some of the year's developments:

  • A historic summit in Pyongyang in June between the leaders of South Korea and North Korea;

  • The first-ever visit by a U.S. secretary of state to North Korea in October, and talk of the possibility of a visit by the U.S. president;

  • A handful of countries, from Europe to Australia, deciding to pursue diplomatic relations with the North; and

  • Reunions of some of the thousands of family members divided for 50 years by the Korean War of 1950-53, with more reunions pending.

On Sunday, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung will receive the Nobel Peace Prize to recognize his efforts to bring democracy to South Korea and to make peace between North and South.

But as this remarkable year draws to a close, both sides face a new challenge: What now?

A mixed bag of results

CNN's Sohn Jie-Ae reports on the heart-wrenching partings that followed the North-South reunions (Dec. 2)

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Many analysts, including academics in South Korea and elsewhere, agree the peace process on the Korean Peninsula may be at a crossroads.

The South has sent food and economic aid to help support the North's faltering economy. It has also returned a group of convicted spies living in the South. The North has yet to reciprocate with POWs and other South Korean citizens who Seoul says are being held against their will. Indeed, the North denies it is holding anyone.

There have been two rounds of reunions of members of divided families. At each reunion, 200 Korean families had brief, very restricted visits with relatives from the other side of the border. A third round is in the works.

The North and South disagree on how to proceed with more reunions. South Korean officials want a permanent meeting place established. They also want regular communication by mail and telephone set up for family members. The North has delayed Red Cross talks to set up reunions and has resisted direct family contact.

Talks about military issues so far have been limited to cooperation on re-linking a railway and a highway between the two countries. They would be the first direct transportation links across the border since the Korean War.

At a meeting Tuesday, at the truce village of Panmunjom, the two sides did start to agree on a system to avoid military clashes during construction through the heavily fortified border.

There have been no talks about reducing the heavy buildup of military firepower along the border.

In a South Korean Defense White Paper released this week, North Korea is still defined as the "main enemy." But in a style shift, the paper used the formal title for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, "Chairman of the National Defense Commission," instead of only his name.

Meanwhile, a visit to the North by the U.S. president is considered to have little chance of happening until Pyongyang provides a clear indication that it is ready to give up developing and selling long-range ballistic missiles.

Personal borders, political overtones

As the two Koreas increase personal contacts across the border, it is becoming increasingly evident that the past 50 years have created a divide that may take some time to bridge. This gap has perhaps appeared nowhere more painfully evident than at the family reunions.

At the second round of reunions that concluded Saturday, 100-year-old South Korean Yoo Doo-hee traveled to North Korea in a wheelchair to see her son for the first time in 50 years.

Now 75 years old, Shin Dong Kil was inducted into the North Korean army at the start of the Korean War.

At their first meeting, in a large dining hall in Pyongyang, mother and son wept in each other's arms. Throughout this emotional scene, Shin's wife expressed thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, in absentia of course, for allowing the meeting to take place.

Ha Jae Kyung, who left home to join the North Korean army, last saw his older brother just weeks after the war broke out. At their meeting in Seoul, Ha told his brother, "I flourished during the past 50 years in the arms of the Dear Leader," and he gave his brother a biography of the late North Korean supreme leader Kim Il Sung.

Such overt political references cropped up during many of the family reunions and disturbed some South Koreans.

"It shows that such temporary events like the divided family reunions are limited in what it can do to relieve the grief of these families," read Sunday's editorial of the leading newspaper, Donga Ilbo. The editorial suggested the North seems to be using the reunions as propaganda.

Timing sensitivities

Some critics in the South say it is time for Kim Dae-jung's government to assess whether it has gotten any concrete results out of its active engagement with the North, the so-called "Sunshine Policy."

"People are saying, 'You are moving much too fast,'" Lee Chong-min, a political scientist at Yonsei University, told CNN. "They are saying, 'You really have to stop giving the North Koreans everything without getting anything much in return.'"


Some opposition members accuse the government of giving in too much. "We're being dragged around by the North," said Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party.

The government counters by saying these developments between the two Koreas are in themselves enormous steps forward.

South Korean President Kim is racing against the clock. He has two years left on the single 5-year term the president gets by law. If progress that is more concrete does not come soon on resolving sensitive family-related issues and reducing military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Kim could face increasing internal political pressure to modify his stance of engagement with the North.

It has been a year of optimism and enormous changes. But peace initiatives here are still young, and 50 years' worth of pessimism and continuous tensions are proving hard to leave behind.

RELATED STORIES: World: AsiaNow In-Depth: Korea at 50 -- Korean War Anniversary

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Nobel Prize Internet Archive
Norwegian Nobel Institute: Nobel Peace Prize 2000 Announcement
Office of the President, Republic of Korea (government site)
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