South Koreans divided over coziness with the North

North Korean officials travel to Seoul tomorrow to begin nuts-and-bolts talks on implementing the accord.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

South Koreans are divided over their historic handshake with North Korea.

On the one hand, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's political enemies are traveling to Oslo next month to explain why Mr. Kim doesn't deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His career as a fighter for democracy and Korean reconciliation is marred by his undemocratic rule and kowtowing to North Korea, they say.

On the other hand, the government is already revising school textbooks to include pictures of Kim clasping hands with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il. The June 13-15 summit is portrayed as a turning point toward peacefully resolving a bitter half century of division.

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Mixed feelings here about the North will only be resolved as the accord succeeds or fails to live up to its enormous promise of ending cold-war hostility on this divided peninsula. The tough work of implementing the agreement begins tomorrow, when top North Korean officials travel to Seoul for three days of talks.

Following the June summit, public opinion here toward North Korea improved dramatically. But views do vary widely. Nearly everyone counts the summit a success. Young people, university professors, and civic groups are particularly optimistic. To them, it took the bite out of restrictive anti-North laws and made it clear that the two Koreas could overcome conflict by focusing on their common heritage rather than the differences in their political systems.

Older people, businessmen, and soldiers - in fact the majority of Koreans - remain suspicious of North Korea and worry about ulterior motives. They want the North to apologize for the Korean War, and return some 200 prisoners of war (POWs) held for half a century, as well as more than 400 fishermen they abducted.

"Kim Dae Jung is giving too much to North Korea" for not broaching such topics, says Byun Yong Shik, an editor at the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper. First, the North ought to win the South's trust, among other ways, by eliminating a constitutional article espousing reunification under the North Korean system, and no longer demanding money from anyone who wants to do business there, he says.

Opinion polls confirm the mixed feelings. According to a recent survey by the Unification Ministry, 43 percent of South Koreans consider North Korea a friend and companion, 36 percent a companion that could become an enemy, and only 17 percent an enemy that could become a companion.

"Korean people are more emotional than rational when thinking about unification," says Mr. Byun, discounting the government survey. Most would say North Korea has improved, but don't think it has really changed, he says.

Conservatives may be wary of Kim's open-door policy, but given its success, "it probably behooves the critics to watch the policy unfold longer," says Lho Kyung Soo, a professor at Seoul National University.

Tomorrow, ministers from the two Koreas will begin discussing a variety of ways to implement the summit accord. They may establish a military hotline, reopen liaison offices, or work on legal guarantees to protect investments by South Korean businesses in the North. Other projects include building the first inter-Korean rail link, coordinating flood control on the Imjin River, and making joint teams for sports competitions.

The summit was a good, important first step, admits Lee Shin Bom, the ex-lawmaker leading the anti-Nobel trip to Oslo. But "we still have deep doubts whether [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il is committed to reform. If [so], we have to help them ... but if [not] we have to be very careful," says Mr. Lee.

He says Kim's hunger for the Nobel Prize caused him to ignore important issues like the POWs and not demand enough reciprocation in general. Of course, if Kim did win the Nobel Prize "it is not only his personal honor - it is wonderful for the Korean people," says Lee.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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