Korean Thaw May Come With a Price Tag

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South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung has finally succeeded in getting a date with the world's most resolute geopolitical wallflower, but don't expect a rapid thaw in the Cold War's most intractable conflict. Pyongyang and Seoul announced simultaneously on Monday that President Kim will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in the Northern capital in the first top-level summit between the two states since their creation five decades ago. Although the announcement was clearly timed to coincide with South Korea's midterm elections — in which President Kim had been criticized by the opposition for failure to produce results in his "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with the North — the meeting's significance goes way beyond Seoul's domestic politicking. After all, no Western-allied leader has ever even met Kim Jong-Il, whose famine-stricken but armed-to-the-teeth state periodically threatens to disrupt the region's tenuous stability with such unpredictable provocations as test-firing a long-range missile over Japan.

But while South Korea has, since the election of Kim Dae-Jung, pursued a policy of reconciliation through famine relief and other economic assistance designed to reduce tensions along what may be the world's most heavily defended border — and the most dangerous posting in the U.S. military — North Korea's policy has been more difficult to fathom. If there's any pattern at all in the periodic bouts of talks with the South, Japan and the U.S. interspersed with episodes of missile launching, gesturing at nuclear weapons proliferation and testing the South's defenses, it's one of extortion. Since 1994, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have pursued a policy of coaxing Pyongyang away from belligerence by offering economic incentives, such as energy and food aid in exchange for nuclear nonproliferation. But that has also created a bargaining framework for North Korea, which has periodically raised the temperature through bouts of military brinkmanship when it feels it's being short-changed. The historic summit in June, if it takes place, will certainly shift the North-South relationship onto a new plane. But the hungry North will likely expect its pound of flesh. Still, judging by the 5 percent bounce on the South Korean stock exchange provoked by news of the summit, that's a price Seoul's willing to pay for a little peace.