Summer 2000: families are reunited after 50 years, hi-tech links bridge the 38th parallel and two leaders discover a new mutual respect

29th September 2000 at 01:00
It was a stunning scene. While millions of young soldiers were aiming at each other along the demilitarized zone, president Kim Dae-jung of South Korea was inspecting the honor guard of North Korea's people's army in the heart of his enemy's capital. As chairman Kim Jong-il quipped, it was a contradiction.

The Korean summit, held in Pyongyang on June 13-15, proved to be a historic breakthrough, a moment of enthusiasm to sever a vicious circle of aged mutual distrust and confrontation between the two Koreas. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the two sides have engaged in numerous talks but failed to produce any concrete outcomes. A negative spiral of negotiation and crisis has characterized the political relations between them. But the June summit was astonishingly different and they achieved more in the following two months than in the previous 50 years.

Starting with suspension of propaganda warfare along the demilitarized zone, a plethora of unfinished tasks have been resolved. The remarkably emotional reunion of a token 200 separated families in August, the resumption of liaison offices in Panmunjom, regularised inter-Korean ministerial meetings, the installation of 300 fibre-optic cable lines between Seoul and Pyongyang, and extensive social and cultural exchanges underscore the depth and magnitude of the success. Also remarkable is that both Koreas have agreed to re-connect the Seoul-Shinuiju railway system which has been suspended for more than half a century. The wall between the two Koreas has been so high and thick that no one would have anticipated such drastic changes in two months.

What accounted for the success? North Korea had every reason to promote exchanges and co-operation with the South for its economic gains, while the South needs to pacify the North for peace and security. Apart from complementary interests, the external milieu has also been favorable. All four big powers in the region - the United States, China, Japan and Russia - blessed the summit without reservation. But what really mattered were the personalities and personal exchanges between the two leaders. Their mutual recognition and inter-personal confidence-building were vital. In an interview with Japanese television in February, South Korea's president Kim, made a surprising statement that his counterpart, chairman Kim, "must be an insightful and competent leader".

It was surprising because the chairman used to be depicted in the South as an eccentric dictator who indulged in women, movies, and drink. Enormous domestic backfire notwithstanding, the statement paved the way to the summit talk by thawing the frozen minds of North Korea. In a war over legitimacy of identity, mutual recognition urned out to be a precious catalyst. While chairman Kim praised president Kim's past struggle for democracy and human rights, president Kim reciprocated in kind by highlighting chairman Kim's filial piety shown through three years' mourning of his late father, Kim Il-sung. There were desperate moments too. After reaching final agreements on the joint declaration, chairman Kim refused to sign the document on the grounds that he is not the head of the state. But President Kim's elderly persuasion ultimately made him sign it. Chairman Kim proved himself a man of Confucian ethics who knows how to respect the elder.

Both leaders were pragmatists with rational thinking. Throughout the summit talk, they avoided ideological rigidity and face-saving manoeuvres, typical of inter-Korean negotiations. Defying the old stereotype, chairman Kim was perceptive, pragmatic, and action-oriented. He was willing to listen, understand, and accept other points of view.

Debates on the status of American forces in South Korea and modes of Korean unification exemplify such personal traits. Withdrawal of the 40,000 United States troops from the South and unification through federation have been North Korea's long-standing, non-negotiable, iron-clad principles. After four hours' discussion with his counterpart, however, chairman Kim not only willingly recognized the value of a continuing presence of American forces in the South, but also showed understanding towards South Korea's incremental and functionalist approach to unification. Judged on its past behavior, such stance truly representsa Copernican change.

The contrast of leadership style also contributed. Chairman Kim behaved like the owner of a chaebol (business conglomerate) who was bold, charismatic, and commanding. Meanwhile, president Kim maintained the air of a chief executive officer hired for a one-term tenure: he was prudent, cautious, and all the time attentive to public opinion in the South. Northern boldness and southern prudence have produced an unexpected ensemble, leading to a smooth operation of the summit meeting.

It was an epoch-making event, laying the foundation for peace, security, and unity on the Korean peninsula. But it is not the end of the Korean problem, merely a beginning to the perilous odyssey to peaceful co-existence and reunification. New challenges and obstacles await. But mutual trust between the two leaders and their continuing commitment will be the most critical factor in meeting the challenges ahead.

Chung-in Moon is the dean of the Graduate School of International Studies and professor of political science at Yonsei University. He accompanied President Kim Dae-jung to Pyongyang as a special delegate

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