The last cold-war frontier thaws

North and South Korean leaders sign historic agreement Wednesday to move toward reunification of the peninsula.

Transcending decades of fraternal hatred, the leaders of North and South Korea raised hands together yesterday, promising to unite their people and dismantle the cold war's last frontier.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il signed an agreement to increase cultural and economic ties, reunify families, ease tensions, and work toward eventual reunification.

As the free-market South offers increased investment and assistance to the totalitarian North in exchange for a greater sense of peace, the leaders of both countries are demonstrating a cooperation that would have been inconceivable just months ago.

Officials in Seoul said yesterday they would speed up delivery of 200,000 metric tons of fertilizer in time for hunger-stricken North Korea's rice-planting season. Officials told Reuters that they would also ask the National Assembly to approve an extra $450 million in economic aid for the North.

During talks Wednesday the leaders discussed opening highway and railway lines across the two countries' border for the first time in more than 50 years, holding a second summit in Seoul, and creating a "hot line" telephone service for discussions in case of a crisis.

The agreement comes after two days of meetings in which the two Kims - leaders of opposing armies that straddle the capitalist-communist divide - exchanged jokes, toasted each other, and, during one limousine ride, held hands.

People in both countries will cheer a deal that cuts a path, however vague, toward reunification. Others will question the wisdom of dealing with a North Korean regime that has yet to prove a commitment to reform. Still others will worry about the impact of better inter-Korean relations on the balance of power in northeast Asia.

It will not escape notice in Washington, Tokyo, and other capitals that this week's summit meeting in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang has produced few noticeable results on some issues of international concern: North Korea's nuclear ambitions, its development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and its human rights record.

But the friends of South Korea also seem to recognize that first things must come first between the two Koreas. One of the most emotive issues is the need to reunify families separated by national division, especially since older Koreans are dying without having seen their loved ones.

In remarks at a ceremonial dinner last night, President Kim sounded elated by what he and Kim Jong Il had achieved.

"We have long waited for this," said President Kim. " Just a little while ago this kind of dream seemed impossible.... We are headed in the path of reconciliation, unification, and peace."

For Koreans, a substantive agreement promises not just closeness to each other but the prospect of a strengthened sovereignty. As President Kim said at dinner: "I firmly believe the fate of our people is ours to forge."

The object of rivalries and conquests by China, Japan, and Russia in centuries past, a Japanese colony during the first half of the 20th century, and a zone of cold-war animosity for the past five decades, Koreans have long thought of themselves as a shrimp among whales.

Although North Korea today charts a largely independent path in the world, especially after the global collapse of communism, the South is an ally of the US and hosts 37,000 American troops who help deter conflict.

But President Kim's career-long drive for reconciliation and Kim Jong Il's positive responses this week are giving Koreans themselves an opportunity to work out how they will govern the peninsula.

Kim Dae Jung will be able to claim vindication for his "sunshine" policy of opening up to the North. But Kim Jong Il is also winning praise.

"He's really starting a new era for South and North Koreans," says Lhee Ho Jeh, a politics professor at Seoul National University. "It seems to me he's very pragmatic."

Yesterday's agreement is a long way from reunification. Previous North-South pacts aimed reconciliation in 1972 and 1992 have gone unimplemented. And as with any such agreement, working out the details promises a world of difficulty.

Even so, the summit demonstrates that Koreans are "on the verge" of becoming the central players on the peninsula, or at least less beholden to powerful nations, says Hahm Chaibong, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.

The appeal of sovereignty, especially among people with as strong an identity as Koreans, puts the South in an awkward position. As South Korean student radicals often claim, the North's emphasis on self-reliance gives its government "more legitimacy if you take a nationalist point of view," Mr. Hahm says.

It is easy to see how North Korea can make concessions - such as liberalizing its political system or allowing more free-market reforms - that would help it meet South Korea halfway on the road to reunification.

But it is harder to envision how South Korea can adapt itself to North Korea, except by doing more to rid the peninsula of foreign influence - that is, US troops.

When the cold war ended in Europe, dramatic change was sudden, so there are many answered questions about whether the understanding achieved in Pyongyang amounts to the lighting of a fuse or the cracking open of a very stiff door. "How do you gradually dissolve something like this?" Hahm asks, referring to the North-South divide. "You're either implacable enemies or very good business partners. You can't be both."

But it may turn out that business partnerships will offer a gradual approach. If the North adopts a Chinese or Vietnamese economic approach in pursuing closer ties with the South - allowing free-market reforms while maintaining single-party rule - the two nations might coexist peacefully for quite a while.

This stage might serve as a prelude to what many Koreans can now dream about with greater realism: a single Korea.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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