Between the Koreas, a year of frustration

There's been little progress since North-South summit opened the door to peace.

President Kim Dae Jung's Nobel Peace Prize is now collecting dust. No trains ferry food, auto parts, or people up and down the Korean Peninsula. Long-divided families are no longer reuniting. There hasn't been a meeting between senior-level North and South Korean officials since last fall.

One year after the leaders of the two Koreas held their historic summit, peace and reconciliation along the cold war's last front is an ideal that remains far more distant than once expected.

Today's anniversary of the first-ever meeting between North Korea's enigmatic Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is notably lacking in any of the euphoria that surrounded the original meeting between the Communist North and capitalist South.

That remarkable summit flipped a new page in history, and opened the way to a brighter future for a people divided by the globe's most-armed border. But hopes of greater cooperation, reduced tensions, and eventual reunification are giving way to a disappointing reality of a long road ahead.

"Things are not as good as I expected. I'm not very happy with President Kim because I thought the family exchanges would continue," says Lee Hae-young, whose husband's siblings remain in North Korea.

Three temporary family reunions, held in mass gatherings under tight government supervision, did not include Mrs. Lee's relatives because her husband is still reluctant to apply for an official reunion with his family - from whom he was separated during the Korean War - for fear of making trouble for his brothers and sisters still living under North Korea's authoritarian regime. Says Lee, the director of an art institute in Seoul: "Do I support our policy with North Korea? Not at this pace I don't."

In the year since the summit, many South Koreans say that while their president has looked eager to move ahead in lending North Korea aid and legitimacy, North Korea's Kim has not held out an olive branch of equal size.

Similarly, the signals emanating from the White House haven't been encouraging. President Bush initially decided - before announcing last week that he is now prepared to renew security talks with North Korea - to put all US discussions with North Korea on hold. His new administration conducted a policy review to decide how to proceed with the only Asian nation that until a year ago was still dubbed a dangerous "rogue state."

That label has begun to fall from favor. But many here, particularly in President's Kim's increasingly popular opposition, warn that the government has tried to downplay the threats still posed by North Korean conventional and nuclear military power in the interest of promoting Kim's "sunshine" policy: engaging the North and coaxing it into the family of nations.

"I don't know how much further the policy of the government can go before it falls prey to the will of the public. How long are we going to do this before we see some reciprocal steps from North Korea?" asks Kyongsoo Lho, a professor of International Politics at Seoul National University.

"It doesn't have to be symmetrical, but it has to be there," says Dr. Lho. "The goal for the medium term should be the reduction for the North Korean military threat and all of these things should precede the next round of economic and financial giveaways to North Korea."

Further complicating the South Korean government's efforts to recast its relationship with Pyongyang in friendly, fraternal terms, three North Korean commercial boats violated South Korea's territorial waters just over a week ago. That news grew even more damaging for Kim this week when papers here reported that in a similar, recent incident, South Korean naval ships were fired on when they crossed into North Korean waters.

The image of a South Korean government that has turned too "soft" on its enemy brethren of more than half a century is magnified by the many points of the joint declaration, signed a year ago, which have not been implemented. North Korea has halted family reunions, plans for a railroad link between the divided countries, and high-level talks on key economic, military, and political issues. Moreover, perhaps the most significant of all, Kim Jong-Il has yet to return Kim's gesture with a visit to Seoul, as promised.

To be sure, inter-Korean relations are better than before the summit, and North Korea is moving toward becoming an accepted member of the international community. North Korea opened relations with 14 countries in the past year, including a normalization of ties with the European Union. A full 300 families reunited, if only for a day, due to last June's summit.

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As such, government officials here discount the growing public dissatisfaction with Kim: a poll released by the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper this week showed about two-thirds of respondents were displeased with the Kim's North Korea policy.

"Generally speaking, I think that people still support Kim Dae Jung's policy," says Euy-Taek Kim, spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs and trade.

The slowdown in the process of North-South detente, Mr. Kim says, was in large part caused by the Bush administration's pause for stocktaking, which was read in hostile terms in Pyongyang. "We found this situation largely due to the policy review. Though that is quite normal for a new administration, it did prompt the return of uncertainty." He argues that this review, combined with growing economic instability in South Korea, accounts for President Kim's plunge in the polls.

Instead of what might have been public celebrations in commemoration of the summit a year ago, Seoul is now awash in strikes and walkouts. Over 55,000 workers from 125 different companies went on strike yesterday, with another 11,000 expected to join today. Many of the strikers are angry about Kim's corporate restructuring program.

Lee Ju Hyun, one of several thousand contract workers for Korea Telecom who lost her job due to restructuring, says, "Sure, unification with North Korea is good, but President Kim should worry about saving his own workers first."

But taking reconciliation slowly, many here say, is not necessarily a bad thing. In addition to economic difficulties, the nation is suffering a severe drought that threatens to take a serious toll on farmers.

"If we make too many hasty developments with North Korea, it will give us too big an economic burden," says Yeon Jae Choi, a university student. "First we must regain our economic power. Maybe in four of five years we will be ready to help them more. Perhaps the speed is not so slow, it's appropriate."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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