Korean Reunification Still a Long Way Off

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Why was anybody surprised that North Korea's "Dear Leader" has a sense of humor? After all, Kim Jong Il has signed off on official biographies that include achievements as diverse as hitting five bottles with a pistol in his left hand at 50 yards and writing six operas in two years (along with his steady output of more familiar tracts such as "Let Us Establish More Firmly the Monolithic Ideological System in the Whole Party and Society"). The leader of the hermetically sealed communist holdover had his South Korean counterpart, President Kim Dae Jung, in stitches Wednesday as he spoofed Western media portrayals of his "hermit lifestyle." The aura of mystery created by such portrayals certainly helped the North Korean leader surprise his South Korean guests, first with a wholly unexpected gushy greeting at the airport and then with his wisecracking repartee.

But the South Koreans came away from their breakthrough summit in Pyongyang with a lot more than a newfound appreciation for the wit and wisdom of the Dear Leader. A four-point communique adopted early Thursday commits the two sides to promote economic, sports and cultural exchanges (including family reunions across the world's most militarized border), to hold ongoing government-to-government talks and, most important, to work toward eventual reunification. No mention was made of the more vexing questions, such as Seoul's concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs and Pyongyang's desire to see the backs of the 30,000 U.S. troops defending the South Korean border.

Despite the euphoria engendered by the historic summit on both sides of the 1953 cease-fire line, don't expect the border fences to be torn down and chopped into souvenir-size chunks any time soon. "Although the dam wall is showing signs of breaking now and there are huge economic benefits for both sides in working together, both Pyongyang and Seoul have an interest in taking things very slowly," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "North Korea wants to limit the impact of outside contact on its closed ideological system, while South Korea is getting over an economic slump and would fear being overburdened by any sudden move to reunification. They're more likely to take incremental steps, over many years, rather than rush into a Germany-type scenario." Post-Cold War realignments that have seen both Russia and China abandoning their traditional hostility to Seoul and building ever-closer relations with South Korea have left the Dear Leader little choice but to make nice with the South. And, of course, it helps that Seoul's leader, President Kim Dae Jung, spent years in a South Korean prison for advocating such dissident ideas as democracy and reunification. But neither man, right now, has much reason to rush.