Is North Korea finally ready to talk?
This is the question South Koreans have been pondering since North Korea took the initiative last weekend, proposing a high-level meeting with South Korea.
Desperate for fertilizer and other aid to combat food shortages, observers wonder if this is the beginning of a sustained government-to-government dialogue.
Reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War are also expected to be discussed at the talks, scheduled for Saturday.
Given the long and fickle history of inter-Korean dialogue, South Koreans are cautiously optimistic. But even if this meeting flops, the two sides may already be talking.
Since the early 1970s, the two Koreas have readily found the time and place to hold secret meetings when needed - often with positive results.
They "definitely [have an ongoing secret dialogue] about everything ... trade, the food crisis, summit talks," says a reporter for Mahl, a progressive South Korean magazine. And "the channel is always open," he believes.
Historically, secret contacts have preceded many public breakthroughs in inter-Korean relations. As the United States began rapprochement with China in 1971, both North and South Korea became worried about becoming pawns. So they took the initiative in settling their differences and began secret meetings.
Shortly after visits between top officials and the installation of direct government-to-government phone lines, they surprised the world with a joint statement agreeing to peaceful unification in principle. A few months later, public inter-Korean talks opened between Red Cross representatives of the two sides.
Secret envoys also met regularly before the 1985 reunions of separated families and the landmark 1992 agreements on "reconciliation, nonaggression and cooperation, and de-nuclearization."
"Progress has only been made when it was done at the top and in secret," says Don Oberdorfer, author of a new book on inter-Korean relations and a veteran newspaper correspondent. The 1972 secret discussions led to the "first real crack in the cold-war wall," he says.
Laying groundwork for progress
Secret meetings are more easily arranged, and promote an atmosphere in which the two sides can speak more frankly, gauging what the other wants before starting official talks. Figuring out what the North Koreans have in mind is apparently a fine art.
"There are many Korean politicians who study game and negotiation theory all targeted toward a better understanding of North Korea," says Kim Dang, a reporter at Sisa Journal, a newsweekly.
Official "four party" peace talks last month in Geneva were a case study in the Koreas' tendency to informality. Diplomats spent only five or six hours in plenary sessions during a week of talks. But during breaks and meals, chatting was endless, says a US diplomat who was there.
One North Korean impetus for unofficial contacts is to avoid recognizing South Korea's legitimacy. Often, the Red Cross has served as a cover for official contacts between the two governments, say historians. In the 1970s, North Korean Red Cross delegates were actually Workers' Party officials. South Korea's delegates were from its intelligence agency.
Today, South Korea's Red Cross insists it is an independent organization. But a Western diplomat says the Red Cross is still "semiofficial" and that "lots of nuts-and-bolts negotiations are done by [Ministry of] Unification officials wearing Red Cross hats."
Lee Dong-bok, a lawmaker involved in North-South issues, says secret talks are not productive and that the South should hold out for recognition from North Korea. "Sooner or later North Korea will change," he says. "We've seen an enormous amount of pressure building up on the North Korean leadership.... They can't make themselves an exception from the rest of the former communist world."
Agents at work
Present-day secret contacts may be facilitated by South Korean agents under various covers. "Black Venus," code name for an agent named Park Chae-suh who posed as an advertising executive, had his cover blown last month.
But Mr. Park's story is not one of national reconciliation. He and others helped presidential candidates in last December's election contact North Korea with offers of money if the North would help damage their political opponents. The scandal has occupied headlines for weeks since documents from South Korea's spy agency were leaked to the press.
That South Korean politicians would use North Korea as a political tool is old hat - red baiting here is as old as the Korean War. Newly elected President Kim Dae-jung was often painted as a communist by the ex-ruling party during past elections. Now that the lifetime oppositionist is finally in power, he is shining light on the domestic operations of the Agency for National Security Planning (NSP).
The investigations and shakeup aim to turn the NSP away from domestic operations and toward North Korea and international economic espionage.