What's At Stake in Korea's Historic Summit

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width=85As the two Kims prepare for a face-to-face next week in Pyongyang, the world will be hoping for a breakthrough: to resolve hostilities, end the suffering in the North and give millions of divided families a chance at last to reunite
When Kim Jong Kwon fled North Korea half a century ago, communist troops were about to overrun Ongin, the small fishing village that was his home. As gunfire crackled in the distance, he took to the road with just his savings in his pocket and a few clothes, joining thousands of other refugees flooding south to escape the fighting. Kim had no reason to think that he might never again see his hometown and the parents, grandparents, two brothers and a sister he was leaving behind.

Since that forced departure in January 1951, the pain of losing his family has never dulled, and Kim has never stopped dreaming of one day going home. Now, as the leaders of North and South Korea prepare to meet in an unprecedented summit this month, he thinks about little else. While reunification of the divided peninsula still looks a long way off, there is suddenly a glimmer of hope that a relaxation of tension between North and South could open the way to family reunifications. I have tremendous expectations, says Kim, who, at 78, has been hiking to keep fit. I want to be healthy enough to meet my family again one day.

A great deal rides on the June 12-14 summit. When South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung and North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il sit down across from each other at a conference table in Pyongyang, it will be the first meeting of the leaders of the cold war adversaries since the end of the Korean War. For the impoverished North, a successful summit could bring badly needed food aid and the investment from South Korean companies it requires to rebuild its derelict economy. South Korea, for its part, hopes to nudge its unpredictable neighbor down the road to economic cooperation and away from military threats and saber-rattling. The United States, Japan and China also have a keen interest in greater stability on the peninsula, where the two sides technically are still in a state of war. North Korea's missile program and its suspected nuclear capabilities keep its neighbors awake at night.

Few have more at stake than the 7.6 million South Koreans--about 15% of the population--with relatives in the North. Like Kim Jong Kwon, most don't know whether the kinfolk they left behind survived the war or life under the fanatical communist regime that has ruled the North ever since. Each has a poignant tale of loss and nostalgia to tell, about the family member left behind or the pain of a parent or grandparent who can't forget. Cut off from contact by the world's last cold war frontier, a thin 4-km strip of land bristling with mines and troops, they can't visit or phone their relatives, or even write a simple letter without the help of someone willing to smuggle the missive into North Korea by hand. Over the years, their hopes have been dashed all too often as North-South relations thawed temporarily, only to freeze again. Now the generation of South Koreans that came from the North is aged, and time is running out. Says Kim: This is my last chance to see my family before I die.

When war broke out, Kim was working as a teacher in Pyongyang. Four years earlier, he had married Kim Soon Ae, a farmer's daughter from a village near his hometown. Together they fled south as the North Koreans stormed down the peninsula in the initial months of the war. They returned briefly after United Nations forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur pushed the North Korean forces back up the peninsula. But China's entry into the war turned the tide once again, and this time Kim fled to Chongju in Korea's southwest corner. Too sick to accompany him, Kim's wife managed to join him by boat a few weeks later.

Kim thought the move to the south was just temporary. But after the two sides battled to a standstill, agreeing to partition the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel, he realized he wasn't going home again. His village had come under North Korean control. Just a few tantalizing kilometers from the new border, it was, for all practical purposes, light-years away. Kim and his wife found themselves short of money in a strange city, cut off from the family network that sustains Korean society. Suddenly, after living the good life, says Kim, I realized I was a beggar.

The Kims started to piece together a new life, moving to Seoul where he found work teaching 6th-grade students. In the aftermath of a devastating war, making ends meet was a daily struggle. South Korea was a dirt-poor country, lagging behind the rapidly industrializing North. When children came--two sons and a daughter--the Kims made it a point of honor to always be the first to pay the school tuition fees so no one would suspect how little they had. Until they were much older, the Kim children had no inkling of the privations their parents had suffered.

The Kims didn't talk much about North Korea. But on family holidays like the Chosuk harvest festival each autumn, Mrs. Kim was always melancholy, recalls her younger son Si Heung. Though the festival is normally a time of celebration when families return to their hometown to honor their ancestors, for the Kim household it was painful. There were few visitors other than Kim's younger sister, the only other family member besides Mrs. Kim's grandmother to make it to the south. After the war, Mrs. Kim learned that her parents had been killed when a bomb dropped on their home; she didn't know if her sisters were alive or dead. You could tell Mother was very lonely, says Si Heung, She had to go through the celebration on her own.

Kim wasn't given to big outbursts of emotion, but his children gradually learned about their father's intense feeling for his lost family and the place where he grew up. During the early 1980s, when a television station launched a nationwide campaign to help members of separated families living in the South to find each other, Kim watched nonstop, crying often.

Daughter-in-law Lee Myung Sook recalls the time several years ago when a department store announced it was giving away free samples of earth from North Korean provinces. Kim left the house early in the morning, skipping breakfast to join the queue. He came back with two plastic bottles of dry soil from Hwanghae province, where his hometown is located. He was so happy, says Lee. When he ran the soil through his fingers, you could sense how much he missed the place. Today one bottle sits prominently on a shelf in Kim's living room in Seoul, the only visible reminder of home: he didn't have a single photograph with him when he left. He and his wife scattered soil from the other bottle three years ago on the grave of his wife's grandmother who died in 1963.

The Kims and other shattered families will be watching the summit closely. But how much can the two leaders achieve? The border at Panmunjon is demilitarized in name only--it remains perhaps the most heavily fortified strip of real estate in the world, where more than 1.1 million North Korean troops face 655,000 South Koreans and 37,000 Americans. Over the years, periods of high tension and confrontation have alternated with spells of d�tente. But the closest the leaders of the two sides have come to meeting was in 1994, shortly after the discovery of North Korea's nuclear weapons program provoked an international crisis that brought the peninsula to the brink of war. In a deal mediated by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program and then-leader Kim Il Sung expressed interest in a North-South summit. Preparations for the meeting were well advanced when Kim Il Sung suddenly died. Relations turned frosty again after the South declined to offer condolences to his son, Kim Jong Il.

The ball started to roll again after Kim Dae Jung took office in Seoul in February 1998. With his Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea, he has tried to persuade Pyongyang to open its doors to investment and dialogue with the South--and brushed aside occasional provocations--including submarine infiltrations and a June 1999 naval clash off the west coast. Critics say the policy amounts to giving away the farm, with little to show in return. But it seems to have convinced the North that Kim is a man they can deal with.

The North Koreans have shown they mean business in the preparations leading up to the summit. Thus far, the two sides haven't discussed much more than protocol and logistics; working-group talks on nitty-gritty issues will come later if the first meetings go smoothly. Both sides have agreed there will be no display of national flags, no singing of anthems--and the southern delegation has no plans to bow to the giant statue of Kim Il Sung in the heart of Pyongyang, standard procedure for most foreign visitors. The final communiqu�, if there is one, won't even mention North and South Korea, referring only to the southern part and the northern part of the peninsula. That is actually progress--previous attempts to bring the two sides together for talks have sometimes bogged down over disagreements about the shape of the conference table. This time, the North seems serious, giving widespread coverage to the summit in the state-controlled press and even referring to Kim Dae Jung as President Kim (traditionally, much less flattering epithets are used for South Korean leaders). This is unprecedented, says Ko Yu Hwan, an expert on North Korea at Dongguk University in Seoul. I don't think anyone doubts this meeting will happen.

More confirmation came last week when Kim Jong Il made a hush-hush and highly unusual trip to Beijing to confer with Chinese leaders. In his first foreign visit since taking over power from his father, King Jong Il traveled secretly by train to Beijing where he met with China's President Jiang Zemin for what the Chinese side described as an in-depth exchange of views. Kim may have been hoping to bolster pre-summit support from China, North Korea's closest ally since the Korean War. But the main photo-op of the two-day visit underscored just how badly Pyongyang is behind the times: Kim dressed in a gray Mao suit, a style the Chinese abandoned years ago, greeting Jiang, attired in a Western-style business suit.

Pyongyang seems to be wrestling with the idea of introducing Chinese-style market reforms to revive its economy (Kim praised China's socialism with Chinese characteristics during the visit). The collapse of the economy is also driving its new willingness to talk to South Korea. Factories are at a virtual standstill, and electricity is in short supply, even in the capital. The famine that has ravaged much of the country in recent years has reportedly eased. Still, Kim Jong Il isn't coming to the table out of desperation, experts say. After six years in power, he is clearly confident that he can extract benefits from the South without losing control. Under his watch, North Korea has allowed almost 240,000 South Koreans to make tightly restricted visits to the Mount Kumgang tourist area just across the border. Several thousand South Koreans are in North Korea helping to build two power plants to replace the nuclear reactors Pyongyang gave up in 1994. Kim Dae Jung's steady policy, a sharp contrast to the flip-flops of his predecessors, has no doubt also bolstered his confidence.

The stakes are higher, perhaps, for the South Korean leader, who has made improved relations with the North one of the centerpieces of his presidency. In a speech in Berlin last March, Kim Dae Jung proposed a kind of mini-Marshall Plan to rebuild the North's basic infrastructure--roads, bridges and other sinews of a modern economy. Trade between North and South is already rising, hitting a record $330 million last year. But everything still has to go by sea, and the North's rundown harbors make that a costly undertaking. More economic exchanges would help to ease political tensions. But Kim needs to extract some concessions from the North to appease conservative critics and placate South Korean taxpayers who will foot the bill for the reconstruction of the North's economy. Progress on family reunifications is essential. The South Koreans have raised the issue several times in low-level talks with the North over the past two years and gotten nowhere. This time, Pyongyang may be prepared to offer something in return. Says Yoo Ho Yeol Paul, a North Korea scholar at Seoul's Korea University: Kim Jong Il will know what Kim Dae Jung wants.

Family-to-family ties could drive reunification. But the pace of progress is unclear. Reunions are still a political issue, not a humanitarian one. Key to the North's survival has been the regime's ability to seal its people off from outside contacts and sources of information. Few North Koreans surf the Internet or even own computers. On television, they get only propaganda-heavy state programming. Allowing family reunions threatens to open cracks in what is probably the most hermetically sealed society in the world. North Korea is still so afraid of contamination that 150 of the workers at Mount Kumgang are actually ethnic Koreans brought in from China.

The South Korean government estimates more than 1 million people from the North ended up in South Korea after the war. Over the years, a few hundred South Koreans with relatives in the heavily ethnic-Korean region of China near the border with North Korea have been able to smuggle letters in. A few families were allowed to reunite briefly in 1985, the only official reunion since the war ended. Ethnic Korean brokers in the border area help to locate relatives and then bribe North Korean officials to let them cross the border into China for brief family reunions. It's expensive--$3,500 to $10,000 for locating the relative and organizing a reunion--and the brokers sometimes take the money and disappear. In the past decade, only about 2,000 South Koreans have located kin in the North, according to government statistics. Only 500 have managed to arrange third-country reunions.

For the mother of Lee Myung Sook, Kim Jong Kwon's daughter-in-law, it was worth the risk. One of her aunts, a naturalized American, traveled to North Korea 10 years ago and found the village she had fled during the Korean War. The aunt located a younger sister and videotaped their reunion. She then called her mother in the U.S. My mother cried when she heard her younger sister was still alive, says Lee. She so much wanted to see the tape. But, hospitalized with liver cancer at the time, she died before her daughter could bring back the precious images.

Since 1998 the alternative to going home has been a visit to Mount Kumgang, a region of spectacular mountain peaks and waterfalls considered one of the scenic jewels of the peninsula. Many of the visitors came originally from the North and go just to catch a glimpse of their homeland (the visitors are strictly segregated from the local population, so looking for relatives is impossible). Kim made the trip with his wife, bringing back mementos like ginseng essence. He has also traveled to the China-North Korea border to see Mount Paekchu, considered sacred by many Koreans. Kim even hooked up with a broker who offered to help him to find his relatives. But he turned down the proposal after deciding he couldn't trust the middleman. He wanted to go back, says LeeMyung Sook. But they couldn't and now they are getting older.

When the leaders of North and South meet in Pyongyang next week, nobody will be paying more attention than the Kim family. They plan to be glued to the television throughout the summit. Sure, the pull of the homeland isn't as strong for the younger generation of Kims, who are more skeptical than their parents about what the meeting can achieve. But younger son Si Heung admits to feeling a pang when he visits his aunt, the one who came from North Korea, and thinks about the two uncles he has never known. I feel a strong attachment to them because they are part of my roots, he says. That's what it's all about--searching for my roots. And Si Heung knows what that summit handshake will mean for his father.