More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last great vestige of the cold war in Asia may be about to crumble.
The leaders of North and South Korea will hold an unprecedented summit set for the middle of June, the two countries announced yesterday. The North-South meeting would take place just days before the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the fighting that solidified the division of the Korean peninsula, and the two sides technically remain at war.
Roughly 37,000 US troops help deter conflict along the world's most-militarized border. But when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung travels to Pyongyang, the North's capital, for talks with its leader Kim Jong Il, the result could be "epochmaking," in the words of the normally restrained Japanese foreign minister.
Although there is reason for ample skepticism at this early juncture, a summit meeting could lay the groundwork for an eventual Korean unification, which would have profound implications in Northeast Asia.
The questions over North Korea's long-range missile and nuclear weapons research might be resolved, and the US might have to rethink the role of its 100,000 troops in the region. Millions of families separated by the Korean War could be reunited.
Most urgently aid from South Korea and other countries could solve North Korea's economic crisis. Humanitarian aid from private groups and the United Nations World Food Program have served to prop up the North Korean regime and help the most needy, but the assistance has not been enough to end chronic food shortages that have killed an estimated 3 million people.
The announcement, made by South Korea's Unification Ministry and North Korean state media, comes three days before elections for South Korea's National Assembly. The news could tilt the vote in favor of Kim Dae Jung's ruling party in contested districts. In that sense, the timing of the announcement is a pre-summit gift from the North's Kim Jong Il to South Korean President Kim.
"I don't think that this is 'the breakthrough,' " says one North Korea watcher in Seoul who requested anonymity. "The interests of the two sides [are not] any more reconcilable now than they were [before]. But the two leaders probably imagine that they can trade off to mutual advantage in the near term."
North Korea could also change its mind. Just last week, it canceled an inter-Korean musical concert after accepting $1 million from the South to put it on. A high-level North Korean official canceled a trip to the United States last month when Washington refused to remove his country from its list of terrorist nations.
But promisingly, the North so far has attached no strings to the summit. Its representatives were "very positive and constructive" during secret meetings in Shanghai and Beijing, said South Korean Minister of Culture and Tourism, Park Ji Won, at a press conference yesterday.
Optimists say a number of factors suggest that the North is finally coming out of its hermitage. Despite his enigmatic image, Kim Jong Il has met with Chung Ju Yung, the founder of South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate, which has run tour boat cruises to North Korea since late 1998, bringing millions of dollars to the regime. Kim visited the Chinese Embassy recently, perhaps looking for more investment. A flurry of North Korean diplomacy aims at normalizing relations with Australia, Britain, Canada, and Japan.
However, exchanges so far have been well isolated. The 210,000 tourists Hyundai has taken to North Korea only interacted with the same few hundred sequestered northerners. To turn around North Korea's economy, Kim Jong Il would have to open the floodgates.
"Kim Jong Il has to reinvent himself the way [China's] Deng Xiaoping did ... He's going to have to go against everything that his father has stood for" and risk the collapse of his regime, says Ham Jae Bong, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Hideshi Takesada, a North Korea specialist at Japan's National Institute of Defense Studies, says the summit signals the first step toward a fall-of-the-Berlin-wall moment - because the North will put itself into a chain of events it can't control.
The North Koreans have long worried about the Trojan Horse aspect of economic openness, and yesterday's news signals that "Kim Jong Il is underestimating this risk," Professor Takesada says.
The North Korean leader has been consolidating power, strengthening the military and police, and bolstering his capacity to control the country; he seems to be acting now to reap the rewards of South Korean President Kim's "sunshine policy" and other soft approaches, should President Kim lose his post and a more hard-line Republican administration come to power in Washington.
Katsumi Sato, another Tokyo-based North Korea watcher, cautions against optimism. The North is indeed acting to cash in on the soft approaches but will maintain its belligerent, manipulative stance toward other countries, Mr. Sato warns.
North Korea has a reason to fear that any serious change in its policies could prompt events to spin out of control. In 1989, the people of Berlin flooded to the Wall, forcing unification by popular demand. In the end, one of the two Germanys disappeared.
* Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report from Tokyo.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society