Moon Chung in two Days on the Other Side

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A first-person account of the human drama in Pyongyang

For me, the visit was like being in a surrealist movie, amid contrasting moods of division and unification, war and peace, hostility and friendship. On several occasions, I was emotionally overwhelmed. The first occurred during the surprising airport reception by Chairman Kim Jong Il. We had not expected him to be there, and his presence portended the success of the summit. Accompanied by members of his powerful inner circle, Kim received the delegation from the South by the aircraft and invited President Kim Dae Jung to ride with him to the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse. This was the historic first encounter between the two leaders of Korea, and they were able to establish a rapport during that limousine ride.

The next emotional rush came as we were greeted by more than 600,000 Pyongyang citizens lining the road to the guesthouse. This sea of people�waving flowers, chanting words of welcome and shedding tears of happiness�moved the delegates from the South. The sounds, colors and expressions of joy seemed to bless our long march to peaceful coexistence and national unification. The crowds were obviously mobilized, but I sensed authenticity and spontaneity in their welcome.
During our two-day visit, we were treated to remarkable displays of North Korean arts and cuisine. A few of the dance performances were far superior to anything I have seen in the South. I could not find any vestige of the socialist realism that used to be so common in North Korea's artistic expression. The performances blended modernity and tradition, East and West, vitality and grace. North Korea appears to enjoy a comparative advantage over us in cuisine, too. Their food was simple but delicious.

I will never forget my own meeting with Chairman Kim at Mokran House during the state dinner hosted by President Kim on the second day. There had been rumors that Chairman Kim would skip the event, but he turned up. Contrary to his reputation for being dour and reclusive, he was charismatic, commanding, confident. His handshake was firm and friendly. He was like a movie director, brilliantly orchestrating events. He literally stole the show with his wit, telling President Kim, Your visit has liberated me from being a hermit! He seemed well aware that the world was watching their encounter.

What surprised me most was how freewheeling and casual Chairman Kim turned out to be. He was a good listener, attentive when people talked. He also treated President Kim with the respect befitting an elder person. He clearly understands the concept of filial piety. Chairman Kim also answered our questions with an appealing spontaneity. He was well informed about South Korea because he watches our TV programs on kbs, mbc and sbs. (He says he prefers kbs because it is state-run.) Chairman Kim was also attentive to the First Lady. Since he hadn't brought his wife, the South Korean side arranged for its First Lady, Lee Hee Ho, to sit with the other delegates. Chairman Kim instantly instructed his staff to move the First Lady's seat to the head table, quipping: President Kim, since you arrived in Pyongyang, you have been urging me to resolve the plight of separated families. But you yourself have become a separated family in Pyongyang.

The atmosphere at the dinner was like that of a family gathering. The North-South Joint Declaration was discussed, agreed upon and signed amid the cheerful sounds of the feast. Toward the end of the meal, both leaders walked up to a podium and announced their full agreement on the declaration. It was another historic moment.

The climax came at a farewell lunch at the guesthouse hosted by Chairman Kim. He toasted us with French wine. The lunch menu included precious bear-foot and sharks'-fin soups. The guests eventually approached the head table, and everyone, including the two Kims, sang Our Wish Is Unification. Emotion prevailed over reason. Peace seemed near, war forgotten. Feelings of hostility melted over the exchange of toasts and reconfirmations of brotherhood.

President Kim had come to Pyongyang with low expectations. He had set modest goals, emphasizing the significance of the meeting itself, the prospects of family reunions and economic cooperation. The Joint Declaration, however, went far beyond those goals, spelling out how North and South can initially steer the unification process. In the Declaration, North Korea made major concessions. It relaxed its former position of excluding foreign intervention in the unification process and accommodated the South Korean confederation proposal, which presupposes one nation, two states, two governments, two systems. It also committed Chairman Kim to visit Seoul in the near future. The first step on the road to peaceful coexistence and unification has proven amazingly successful. And I can tell my grandchildren: I was there when it happened.

Moon Chung In, a political science professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, accompanied Kim Dae Jung to Pyongyang.