South Koreans wait for North to return the favor

A year after a groundbreaking meeting, inter-Korean progress is stalled.

That is Korean for "when," and it has become the hot question here: When will North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pay a visit to South Korea, as he promised during the extraordinary inter-Korean summit a year ago?

The first meeting between the leaders of the capitalist South and communist North since the division of the peninsula more than half a century ago took place last June. But the North's Chairman Kim has still not confirmed any plans for a reciprocal visit.

That looks especially bad for the South's Kim, whose popularity has been sagging despite international recognition for his "sunshine policy," which won him last year's Nobel Peace Prize. With few other aspects of North-South reconciliation on track - negotiations, an inter-Korean railroad, a hotline, and family reunions are all on hold - the elusive visit is evolving into a hoop that must be jumped through before the show can go on.

"Not long ago, I asked North Korea to inform us of when Chairman Kim Jong Il will be able to visit Seoul. I want to remind them again today," South Korea's Kim said earlier this month.

Some say that such statements only make President Kim appear weaker, groveling for equal treatment from his younger, poorer counterpart. Yet a visit by Chairman Kim appears to have been elevated to the top of the South Korean government's wish list of CBMs - diplomatese for confidence-building measures.

"We may be putting too much emphasis on a ... visit," says former foreign minister Han Sung-joo. "We want him to come and yet when he does we don't know what that will do. It may divide South Korean society further."

Some analysts here say that President Kim is falling in line with popular sentiment, which seems to be abuzz with one demand from North Korea: reciprocity. That is also the catchphrase of the Bush administration, whose newly jelled North Korea policy is "comprehensive reciprocity." a term understood to include discussions of everything from nuclear missiles to the last tank posted along the heavily-armed "demilitarized zone" between North and South Korea.

Others wonder whether the importance President Kim is placing on a visit could provide a stumbling block to more substantive issues. "They're turned the visit into a litmus test of the credibility of the North Korean leadership," says Scott Snyder, the Asia Foundation's representative in Seoul.

That is not to disparage the significance of a trip by Kim to South Korea, a country that still harbors mistrust toward him. Korea's Confucian roots, which holds elders and ancestors in great esteem, mean that the older Kim's calling on the younger Kim first seems out of the natural order. The lack of a return visit could be perceived as an insult.

Moreover, history has proved the potential power of a leader's visit to "enemy" territory. From President Nixon's visit to China to Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, state sojourns have opened doors and proved more than symbolic.

But many say Chairman Kim seems far from ready to fling open North Korea's doors to the world. A visit would subject him, for example, to the feisty South Korean press. At last June's summit in Pyongyang, 50 South Korean journalists were allowed in under tight supervision, but virtually no other foreign press.

"The summit last year was a highly orchestrated affair, and that's a lot easier to do in Pyongyang," says Kyongsoo Lho, a professor of International Politics at Seoul National University. "North Koreans will be worried about how their image is portrayed in the South."

North Korea's leader will probably use the visit to barter for tangibles. The country desperately needs aid in the form of food, funds, and electricity.

Perhaps "one of the main reasons Kim Jong Il hasn't showed up yet is that a lot of economic benefits that were hinted at the beginning of this process have not come through," adds Mr. Snyder. "Maybe Kim Jong Il thought he'd get more."

So did South Koreans. The disenchanted say that the North used the 2000 summit as a legitimacy card with the international community. But during this past year's opening of diplomatic relations of some 14 countries with the North, a somewhat promising picture had emerged.

"The ability to predict the future depends on which version of Kim Jong Il you buy," says a senior Western diplomat. "The picture we see is not someone who wants to export revolution, but to survive in his own country. He does not appear to be irrational."

Ma Yong-il, a delegate of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea, said during an April visit to Cuba that Chairman Kim would visit South Korea in the second half of the year. But an editor at an English-language North Korean newspaper based in Tokyo says Kim is waiting for the appropriate atmosphere.

Kim Jong Il "is seeking a suitable time to visit.... No tangible result is expected if he were to visit South Korea now," says Ko Dae-jun of The People's Korea.

"North Korea suspended holding talks with South Korea because it was waiting for the United States to decide its policy [on] North Korea.... North Korea was strongly offended that US decided on an agenda by themselves," Mr. Ko adds.

US and North Korea, getting back to the table

For the moment, it boils down to money.

At least this is the impression North Korea gave the United States Monday. In its initial response to the US offer of resuming talks, North Korea said that it is due compensation for the loss of electricity caused by delays in the building of two light-water nuclear reactors promised in a 1994 agreement, under which the North froze its nuclear weapons development.

"We don't see any particular basis for compensation," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

President Bush intends to get back to business with North Korea with a tougher, nosier America, demanding "effective verification" of a reduction of Kim Jong Il's arsenal. The US wants talks to include not just the nuclear weapons production and export program, but also conventional military machinery and troops.

North Korea says that amounts to moving the goal posts. As far as it is concerned, a reduction in conventional forces is something to be discussed only in bilateral talks between North and South Korea, and the US should consider withdrawing its own 37,000 troops from the South. Officials in both the North and South Korean governments attribute at least some responsibility for their dialogue stalemate to the US.

While Bush's decision to renew talks with North Korea - something Secretary of State Colin Powell recommended doing several months ago - was keenly welcomed in South Korea, the South Korean government finds itself in an increasingly difficult place. Though the US is a close and cherished ally, South Korea can no longer play the role North Korea had hoped it would: acting as a sort of lobbyist for going easy on impoverished and broken North Korea.

"North Korea wanted South Korea to advocate North Korea's positions, and after the advent of the Bush administration, South Korea changed that," says Park Jong-chul, senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for National Reunification.

In comparison with the rhetoric of renewal preferred by former President Bill Clinton and President Kim when speaking of North Korea, the Bush administration sees Pyongyang primarily in threat terms. Defense officials here say Bush's decision to include conventional weapons and ground troops in a more comprehensive approach is a significant shift from past policy.

"The US should respect or acknowledge South Korea's policies and not expect it to be imposed on them by the US," says Baek Seung-joo, a research fellow with the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, an affiliate of Korea's Defense Ministry.

"The Bush administration policy is that we should be able to verify North Korea's policy and request reciprocity, and I understand this," says Dr. Baek. "But we must also understand that if US relations with North Korea deteriorate, inter-Korean relations will deteriorate even more, by two- or three-fold."

President Kim's largest opposition group, the Grand National Party (GNP), is pleased to see a US administration that will demand more from North Korea before it can get more in the way of aid and legitimacy. Lee Hoi Chang, president of the GNP, says the US is not to blame for strained and slowed South-North reconciliation. That, he argues, is all Kim Jong Il's doing. "On the contrary, it is not because of US policy toward North Korea, but North Korea's unwillingness or inability to carry out talks with the South," Mr. Lee says. "The US is expressing a willingness to lower the tension on the Korean Peninsula that will be very helpful to the North-South dialogue. I don't see it as an obstacle in any way."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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