Leaders on geopolitical blind date

N. Korea's readiness for change will dictate success of tomorrow'splanned summit.

Underlying the planned historic encounter between leaders of North and South Korea is a hope that the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, is a reformer at heart.

Once portrayed as a terrorist mastermind and the rigidly Communist leader of a collapsing nation, South Korean officials now see someone different.

Mr. Kim appears firmly in power and his once reclusive regime is establishing relations with Western nations. His recent visit to Beijing has shown that he is "not a disaster at a cocktail party," in the words of one diplomat here who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The price of admission to a new era on the Korean peninsula, it seems, is to bury the past and to trust Kim - at least for now.

The three-day summit, set to begin tomorrow with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's arrival in the North's capital of Pyongyang, is an opportunity to ease the conflict between the two Koreas, the last nation on the planet still severed by the cold war. It is also the geopolitical equivalent of a blind date. The leaders of these nations have never met and in the past half-century the paths of the two countries have dramatically diverged.

Kim Jong Il, whose official title is chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, leads a brutal Communist dictatorship and a decrepit centrally-planned economy. His Korea is a land of scarcity in which food and political freedom are in short supply.

South Korean President Kim heads a vibrant democracy and free-market economy. A summer evening in the Myongdong neighborhood of Seoul puts his land of plenty on display: Protesters rail against the government while sidewalk evangelists bid to save the souls of blas shoppers pondering a cornucopia of international brand names.

Kim Dae Jung is a longtime democracy activist who struggled for decades against South Korea's military dictators before being elected president in December 1997. Kim Jong Il inherited the leadership of North Korea from his father.

"We don't know how the two sides will react and what their first conversation will be like," says Moon In-Chung, a South Korean political scientist who will accompany President Kim to Pyongyang. "It will be a total surprise to Koreans as well as to foreigners."

For an encounter that is apparently so unscripted, a lot is at stake. North and South Korea technically remain at war, since a 1953 armistice was never converted into a peace treaty. Some 37,000 US troops stationed in the South help deter conflict along a 150-mile demilitarized zone.

The North has practiced global blackmail for the past decade, winning aid packages from the US and other countries in exchange for backing away from controversial nuclear- and missile-development programs. This week's summit is a glory moment for President Kim, who has pushed a "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea that has been endorsed by the US.

The idea is to tempt Chairman Kim with aid and investment and gradually convince him to abandon his nation's threatening stance toward South Korea and stop building weapons of mass destruction.

An undesired opposite effect

The risk is that in agreeing to the summit, Chairman Kim is gaining more room to maneuver diplomatically and angling for more aid, while lacking any intention to change the belligerent character of his regime. The United States and other countries have insisted that North Korea improve relations with the South to pave the way for better ties with their own nations. "I hope this is a step toward peace," says Lho Kyongsoo, a Seoul National University political scientist known for his conservative views. "But depending on whether Kim Jong Il is reformist or not, it could also be a step toward entrenching the leadership that's been in place since 1994-95," when Kim took over.

Professor Lho worries that South Korea - in practicing engagement - may end up enhancing North Korea's ability to make war. President Kim's sunshine policy isn't the only reason North and South Korea are coming to the negotiating table. There is also the surprising durability of Kim Jong Il.

When North Korean founding father Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, the ability of his son Kim Jong Il to stay in power was uncertain. South Korean and US officials had long portrayed him as an eccentric and untested figure whose philandering lifestyle would shame a rabbit. He was blamed in particular for ordering the 1987 bombing of a South Korean jetliner that killed 115 people.

Even today, a video at the Eradication of Communism Museum, on the southern side of the demilitarized zone, explains that North Korea's use of secret tunnels to infiltrate South Korea can only be attributed to "madness ... madness ... madness."

But Kim Dae Jung has led a reappraisal of his North Korean counterpart, this March calling him an intelligent and capable leader whose control of his country deserved acknowledgment.

So Kim Jong Il may be feeling like he is getting the respect he deserves from Kim Dae Jung and from other governments. Kim Jong Il's recent visit to China, adds the diplomat, demonstrates that he "obviously has some ability to deal with affairs of state with one of the most important countries in the world."

Delaying reunification

A key byproduct of South Korean President Kim's policy of openness is that his fellow citizens are learning more than they ever have about North Korea. The result is a growing desire to delay reunification, since South Koreans recognize that they will have to make major sacrifices to raise the standard of living of their northern neighbors.

That is not to say that the 7 million or so South Koreans with family in North Korea are willing to forsake their kin - indeed, family reunions are a priority item for President Kim. But as a whole, South Koreans like "peaceful coexistence" much better than the idea of absorbing the North.

This popular sentiment tends to reinforce President Kim's own promises to respect the national integrity of North Korea, and may also account for Kim Jong Il's willingness to talk. Observers of North Korea have long surmised that the first priority of the country's leadership - whether under Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong Il - has been its own survival.

But there is some evidence to suggest that Kim is contemplating reform as a means to preserve his regime. During the China visit, Kim praised his neighbor's free-market economic reforms, indicating that he may break from North Korea's long-standing policy of economic self-reliance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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