A sense of hope on Korean peninsula

Signs of rapprochement in muted celebration of war's 50th anniversary.

For North and South Korea, June has long been the cruelest month, a time when both sides mark the surprise nighttime attack launched 50 years ago by the Communist North on its southern neighbor.

The June 25 invasion started a conflict that left millions dead and cemented a bitter division that persists to this day. The two sides signed an armistice agreement in 1953, but remain technically at war.

But a decade after the cold war ended in Europe, the two Koreas are taking baby steps toward peace, and the sense of hope and rapprochement is palpable in the way they marked the anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict.

Following a historic June 13-15 summit in the capital, Pyongyang, North Korea announced it was cancelling war anniversary celebrations. Both sides have stopped broadcasting propaganda over loudspeakers at the heavily fortified inter-Korean border since the meeting.

In the South Korean capital yesterday, President Kim Dae Jung said his talks with Northern leader Kim Jong Il marked a turning point. "The tragic June, that left an indelible mark on our history, is slowly changing into a June of hope. It is changing into a time when the noble cause of the victims of the war will be fulfilled."

His government also cancelled the usual military parades and battle reenactments this week. In the only major event, 5,000 South Korean and foreign veterans from the 21 nations that contributed to the US-led United Nations force that came to the South's aid, packed a broad outdoor plaza at a war memorial in Seoul, where they were honored with military bands, cannons, and speeches.

Among the American veterans in attendance was Congressman Charles Rangel, (D) of New York, who lost half his unit on a wintry pass in 1950. Mr. Rangel called his wartime experience "a nightmare," but said he didn't mind the cancellations. "When countries have been at war for 50 years and they're concentrating on peace rather than war, then I would think that doves and olive leaves are a little more important than parades and the display of military power," he told reporters.

Since the summit, the two Koreas confirmed they would establish an executive hotline for emergencies. South Korean companies have rolled out investment plans and universities are proposing academic exchanges with North Korea. Samsung already assembles color televisions and telephones in Pyongyang, and carmaking conglomerate Hyundai is expanding its tourist resort in the North's Diamond Mountains.

But reconciliation is not as straightforward as building factories and suddenly becoming friends. South Korea's rival political parties are debating what the military should call North Korea. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party thinks the term "main enemy" is outdated in the wake of the summit. But the opposition Grand National Party feels any softening could be a threat to security. President Kim has vowed to maintain a vigilant defense while encouraging reconciliation.

"Until unification is actually fully achieved and a firm guarantee of peace is arranged, we cannot afford to relax," Kim said at the ceremony yesterday.

Surprisingly, North Korea showed "substantial understanding" about the need to keep US troops in South Korea, he added. The 37,000 US soldiers stationed here help maintain regional stability between rivals Japan and China, say Korea watchers. Kim called the understanding a "major accomplishment."

After the summit, however, North Korea stated that only after US troops leave South Korea can there be peaceful reunification.

The two Koreas will take their next step Tuesday, when Red Cross representatives meet to arrange reunions for about 100 of the 7 million South Koreans with relatives in North Korea. Underground brokers smuggle family members out of North Korea to reunions with southern relatives who can afford the expensive fees. But come mid-August, the two Koreas plan to hold the first government-sponsored reunion since 1985.

*Material from the wire services was used for this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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