SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — An unprecedented three-day summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, set to begin today in the Northern capital of Pyongyang, has enormous implications for the two nations divided since 1945.
Here is a look at the men involved, the issues they may address, and the events that have brought them to this point.
If the summit opens an era of reduced tensions and expanded cooperation between the two Koreas, the 22 million people of the North will have a lot to gain.
Their economy has shrunk for nine years, only growing slightly this year because of a good harvest and foreign aid. An ongoing famine, caused by a collapsing economy and natural disasters, killed hundreds of thousands of people during the 1990s.
Politically, North Koreans live under what is almost certainly the most repressive and closed regime on earth.
The summit could lead to greater interaction with the outside world and assistance from South Korea that might begin to reverse at least their economic predicament.
Although the regime is generally assumed to fear the political turbulence that openness might bring, it may also turn out that increased prosperity would strengthen North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's hold on power. Conservative South Koreans would oppose such an outcome.
South Koreans have little to gain economically, at least in the short term, but they would breathe a sigh of relief if the North Korean military stood down. Thousands of forward-positioned artillery have threatened for decades to rain missiles on Seoul.
On both sides, a program of family reunions would allow millions of people to see loved ones separated from them by 50 years of war and division.
It is impossible to know what North Korea seeks from this summit. South Korea is looking for a breakthrough, but officials say it would be counted as a success if the two leaders made a joint statement and initiated a few specific joint projects.
At the very least, they say, they will be perfectly happy with images of the two Kims meeting each other.
"The picture of two leaders smiling and shaking hands, the picture itself is a great message for world peace," says Park Jie Won, a South Korean Cabinet member who negotiated summit preparations in secret talks with North Korea.
The summit agenda
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung says he wants to convey that his country has neither the intention nor the ability to absorb North Korea in a German-style unification.
In a speech in Berlin this March that may have sparked North Korea's consideration of the summit meeting, he proposed that South Korea guarantee the North's national security, assist its economic recovery, and support it in the international arena. In return, the North would have to abandon armed provocation against South Korea, comply with past promises to not develop nuclear weapons, and give up ambitions to build long-range missiles.
In the negotiations that preceded the summit, North Korea demanded that "three principles of reunification" dating from 1972 be declared at the summit: that the two sides proceed without foreign influence, unify peacefully, and emphasize their "great racial unity" over ideology.
This vague language masks vast divisions over the presence of the 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, South Korea's laws restricting pro-North Korean activity, North Korea's weapons-development programs, and its parlous human rights record.
South Korean officials have listed four topics their leader will address: reuniting families separated by the 1950-53 war, inter-Korean economic cooperation, ways to reduce military tensions, and institutionalizing regular channels of dialogue.
Officials say keeping the agenda simple and starting with easy issues improve chances for success. Critics worry this may mean the South won't confront North Korea about more contentious issues.
And where the South Korean leader is expected to concentrate on taking small but concrete steps, his counterpart may want to address thornier, bigger issues. "Although Kim Jong Il wants economic support from South Korea," says Park Jong Chul of South Korea's state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, "he is likely to raise the basic problems."
*Staff writers Cameron W. Barr in Seoul and Kevin Platt in Beijing contributed to this report
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society