Crossing the Line

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It was a short jaunt — only 30 meters, in fact. But when South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, on his way to Pyongyang to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong Il, got out of his limousine on Tuesday to walk across the line dividing the two countries, he became the first leader from either side to traverse the cold war's last frontier on foot. In marking the occasion, Roh sounded not a little like Ronald Reagan exhorting the Soviets in Berlin 20 years ago: "This line will be gradually erased," he said, "and the wall will fall."

Hope springs eternal on the Korean peninsula. But so, alas, does futility. For Roh, unpopular at home and facing the end of his term, the summit offers a chance to match the legacy of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his rapprochement with the North. North Korea stands to gain even more from détente: a thaw in frosty relations with the U.S.; a potential end to the Korean War, which has technically endured for more than a half-century; and a development-aid package that could keep its decrepit economy limping a while longer. Kim has been more pliable of late: at six-party talks in Beijing late last month, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear facilities and disclose the scope of its nuclear program by the end of the year. Yet history counsels caution. Kim Jong Il has proven a master manipulator of Seoul's optimists, raising hopes of eventual reunification just to extract economic concessions and buy more time for his hermetic Stalinist fiefdom. "You can imagine a scenario in which South Korea offers this big carrot and North Korea simply pockets it and retreats back into its shell," says Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

This week's summit had all the ingredients of compelling agitprop: martial pageantry, a red-carpet welcome for Roh, flower-waving crowds, and even a cameo by the reclusive Dear Leader, who, despite looking unsteady and in poor health, nevertheless emerged to play host. But stagecraft doesn't equal statecraft. For now, the dream of a North Korean perestroika remains just that. Roh may have taken a symbolic step toward reunification — but the road ahead is long and far from smooth.