Korea's Big Show

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Kim jong Il steps out and steals the spotlight in a momentous summit the world hopes wasn't just a spectacle

As soon as the khaki-clad Dear Leader appeared out of nowhere, striding confidently across the tarmac to greet South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, it was clear the world was in for an unforgettable show. The first handshake of the summit was the defining moment, setting the stage for the extraordinary three days that followed. South Koreans, and the rest of the world, looked on in stunned disbelief as President Kim and Chairman Kim Jong Il clasped hands and beamed at each other like long-lost brothers--which, in a sense, they were. Inspired by the two Kims, members of the North and South Korean delegations held hands, sang songs about unification and toasted one another with champagne. By the time the two leaders hugged each other, back on the tarmac again as President Kim headed home, it looked like the end of a wildly successful family reunion--which, in a sense, it was. Reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, seemingly eternally beyond reach a week earlier, suddenly looked like an idea whose time had come.

It was a show the world had been waiting half a century to see. In a landmark pact signed by the two Kims, North and South agreed to take steps toward easing the tensions that have kept them uncomfortably close to battle since the end of the Korean War. Among the proposals:the reuniting of families split by the civil war and its political aftermath, closer economic ties, even discussions on unification. Chairman Kim promised to make a return visit to Seoul.

As the euphoria fades after what President Kim called the most important day in Korean history, the hard questions have already begun. First, was it all real? Some wary observers warn that this could be yet another North Korean plot, an elaborately staged performance designed to make the South let down its guard. On the other hand, if Pyongyang is sincere, what next?The document signed by the two Kims is short on specifics and less detailed than previous North-South pledges. Reuniting separated families is an appealing idea, but the logistics are daunting. More than 6 million South Koreans have relatives in the North. Who gets to go? Most perplexing of all, where does one start in trying to meld North Korea's stone-age economy with the Internet-savvy South? Then there's the issue the two leaders merely flirted with: the missiles and other weapons of mass destruction that Pyongyang uses to threaten the rest of the world. Warns Victor Cha, a Korea expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.: Handshakes and hugs and delightful small talk are all very nice. But all the tougher issues are still out there.
For now, South Koreans seem content to run with the delirious optimism and excitement of the moment. President Kim returned home to a hero's welcome last Thursday, greeted by throngs of flag-waving well-wishers and a country brimming with hope. Many citizens were consumed with just trying to digest what had happened. For years, South Korean propagandists have painted the North as the source of all evil: unexpectedly, the Evil Empire was right in their living room, live, and it didn't look so creepy anymore. It was hard to resist the urge to believe the world had somehow become a different place.

Reality check. As some sober-minded observers noted, the two sides have slow-danced together before, though more warily. Back in 1972, the head of the kcia, South Korea's intelligence agency, made a secret visit to see North Korea's GreatLeader, the late Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father. They signed a pact pledging to work toward reunification, prompting a surge of optimism among the public. But at the conference table, the rapprochement disintegrated, putting d�tente back in the deep freeze for years. This time around, the atmospherics were better:the two leaders traded quips and clearly formed a bond. The big powers in the region--the United States, Japan, Russia and China--all appeared to be on board, for once. What's more, there are other signs that both Koreas want to improve the relationship. The North badly needs help from the South to rebuild its economy; the South wants to end the tense stand-off along the border and to reunite divided families. There seems to be a sense on both sides that there has never been a better time to push for progress.

Chairman Kim's show-stopping summit performance suggests he means business. In North Korea's cloistered society, images are crucial to communicating with the rank and file, according to C. Kenneth Quinones, a North Korea scholar now working on humanitarian aid projects in the country. Kim Jong Il's high-profile public performance sent a clear message:the old days are over. It is a message the North Korean leader is stuck with, says Quinones: There is no way to turn the clock back and erase the pictures.

The kinder, gentler Chairman Kim may be for real. But there are ample reasons to expect trouble ahead. In some respects, the initial euphoria fits a longstanding pattern of how Pyongyang manipulates diplomatic contacts. The North Koreans are often very positive in the initial round of talks, leaving their negotiating rival full of optimism, says Korea expert Victor Cha. That raises expectations for big results, which can increase the pressure on their negotiating counterparts, particularly those who have voters to answer to. Once the hook is set, the North Koreans often fall back on the hard-line tactics for which they are famous--stalling, outrageous brinkmanship, storming out of talks. Says Cha: They are not going to play Mr. Nice in the second round.

Just how sharp-elbowed things get may depend on whether the two Kims can develop a genuine rapport. They certainly looked chummy on television. On Day Two of the three-day summit, Chairman Kim told his South Korean counterpart with mock seriousness that he was worried the President might have had to down his noodles too quickly in order to be on time for the meeting: It doesn't taste good if you rush. He even poked fun at his reputation for being hermit-like and thanked President Kim for helping me break out of my seclusion. He had the President and his wife laughing at his jokes at a state banquet later that night. There were reports of a few slip-ups behind the scenes, when the Chairman failed to show up for a meeting in what appeared to be a bit of grandstanding to demonstrate he was running the show. But he scored points by appearing extra-solicitous with his counterpart, behavior that is valued in the deeply Confucian traditional culture of both Koreas. Says Moon Chung In, a political science professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, who accompanied President Kim to Pyongyang: He was impeccable. He treated the President with respect befitting an elder person.

The first real test of how much the summit accomplished will come Aug. 15, when the two sides are to start exchanging delegations of separated families, an issue of great emotional concern in South Korea. North Korea, which has long resisted such exchanges, wants to proceed slowly. Pyongyang does its best to keep North Koreans insulated from news of the outside world, and such reunions could open a dangerous crack in the information cordon. Seoul says the first exchange will involve at least 100 families. In the rosiest scenario, predicts Bruce Cumings, a Korea scholar at the University of Chicago, there will be a few thousand family reunions a year: Pyongyang doesn't want a lot of people traipsing around the North looking for their relatives.

Tackling economic issues will be even harder. One obstacle is North Korea's lack of familiarity with capitalism and commercial law. In other words, Pyongyang may try to pocket any profits foreign investors earn. Japan's ethnic Koreans, who have been investing in the North for years, tell horror stories about pouring money into businesses, only to have the North Korean government run them into the ground by making unreasonable demands for a piece of the pie. I don't think you can invest there and then expect things to go well, says Takashi Nishioka, a North Korea watcher at Modern Korea, a Tokyo think tank.

Still, there are promising signs that Pyongyang is slowly catching up with the rest of the world. In the past year, the country has sent teams of young cadres to the U.S., Australia and elsewhere to study decidedly non-Marxist topics such as market economies. At the summit, Chairman Kim agreed to start hashing out thorny issues like investment guarantees and dispute arbitration. North Korea is already giving farmers more leeway to market their products, and Kim may have begun to grasp just how far behind his country has fallen. On a secret trip to Beijing shortly before the summit, Chinese sources say, he was astounded to see what modern computers can do.

Even with greater legal protection, North Korea isn't likely to spark an investment gold-rush any time soon. In theory, the North offers a cheap, disciplined labor force. But foreigners can't do their own hiring and firing--they have to apply for workers through a government agency. The North's dilapidated transportation system drives up costs, wiping out much of what companies would save on labor. All but a few foreign investment projects in the North are unprofitable. Hyundai, the biggest investor, is thought to be among the losers. That may be fine with the giant conglomerate's honorary Chairman Chung Ju Jung, who left the North as a boy and is willing to spend whatever it takes to promote reunification. But companies looking at the bottom line may think twice. Says Jonathan Pollack, a specialist in East Asian security at the Rand Corp., a California think tank: Any of the chaebol wanting to put dough in the North should do it with their eyes wide open, not with their hearts beating too fast.

For now, expect small but crucial steps like rebuilding rail links severed by the demarcation line along the 38th parallel, inside the demilitarized zone, a 4-km-wide no-man's-land between North and South. Since the end of the war, only a few people have crossed the line at Panmunjom, the so-called joint-security area and the only place where barbed wire and mines are absent. In a speech to the nation on his return to Seoul last week, President Kim suggested South Korean trains could travel non-stop to London or Paris if the line connecting Seoul and Sinuiju in the northwest corner of North Korea were relinked. That would require laying just 25 km of track, but the savings would be huge, cutting the cost of shipping a container across the border from $1,000 to $200.

But the job ahead is enormous. Remember the reunification of Germany? Although East Germany was then the most industrialized country in Eastern Europe, West Germany has had to pour some $600 billion into the east over the past decade, and its taxpayers have to pay a 5.5% solidarity levy to keep the subsidies flowing--and still, almost one in five workers in the east is unemployed. Tough as German reunification has been, it will look like a walk in the park compared with the task of trying to suture one of the world's most backward economies onto one of the world's most advanced. That's one reason the South wants to get started now. Crippled by shortages of electricity, only about a third of North Korea's factories are running. The North's gross national product totaled just $12.6 billion in 1998, the most recent year for which statistics have been published, and output of goods and services shrank during most of the 1990s. The building blocks of a modern economy--bridges, roads, power lines--are at about the level of South Korea a quarter century ago, according to the Construction and Economic Research Institute of South Korea. It will cost at least $20 billion a year for the next decade to help restore the North's economy, according to Lee Doo Won, an economist at Yonsei University.

The two societies are light-years apart as well. In the North, an entire generation of children has been stunted by years of malnutrition. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than 1 million North Koreans have died of hunger in recent years amid a nationwide agricultural collapse. A massive outpouring of international food aid has kept the numbers from climbing much higher. Foreign visitors come back with tales of doctors carrying out operations without anesthetics, of hospitals washing and reusing cotton swabs. In Pyongyang, the rhythms of life hark back to a previous century: the city goes dark at night, and the most common way of getting around town is by foot. Across the border in Seoul, where cars clog the streets and cell phones are ubiquitous, the 21st century is well under way.

And then there's the problem of the missiles. The U.S. and other countries, most notably Korea's close neighbor Japan, are deeply worried by the North's long-range ballistic-missile program, which Pyongyang has put on hold but not abandoned. Some intelligence reports suggest Pyongyang is still trying secretly to build nuclear weapons. It is far from clear whether the new, improved Chairman Kim will move to ease the world's concerns. President Kim says he raised the security issue with the North but has given no indication of what was said. The first clue may come when the U.S. and North Korea sit down for missile talks scheduled for later this month. But Pyongyang won't readily give its bargaining chips away. This is the beginning of a very long process, says a senior U.S. official. It will not be a straight line. It will be difficult.

For that reason the U.S. is unlikely to remove its 37,000 troops from South Korea anytime soon. It would be extraordinarily premature to think of a withdrawal, cautions a White House aide. However, senior presidential adviser Hwang Won Tak told South Korean television that the two Kims had discussed the possibility of U.S. troops remaining in Korea as a source of stability for the region. Until now, North Korea has demanded the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops as a precondition for unification. Over time the issue will loom larger if North and South manage to hash out measures to wind down tensions and reduce the mutual military threat. Any significant thaw on the peninsula could also roil the already contentious debate over Washington's plans to build a national missile defense system to ward off attacks by so-called rogue states like North Korea. The missile shield is premised on the notion that North Koreans are an unpredictable bunch, crazy enough to fire missiles at the U.S. even at the cost of immediate annihilation. If North Korea morphs into a normal state and respects deterrence, why do we need to embrace the cost of a national missile defense? asks Robert Gallucci, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service who, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, negotiated with North Korea over its nuclear program.

Whether or not North Korea deserves the rogue-state label, it remains a mystery to anyone outside its borders. The world will watch Chairman Kim carefully for signs as to where the two Koreas go next. An avowed movie buff, Kim has carried off a dramatic remake of his own image, showing himself to be a master of modern media and a crafty operator. But he has set in motion forces that could challenge his ability to maintain control. Foreign visitors to Pyongyang report that the North's button-down society has recently been starting, ever so slightly, to loosen up. When Quinones visited North Korea in 1995, he got an interpreter in trouble by passing a copy of a popular foreign novel. On a trip earlier this year, he says, interpreters had copies of articles from international newspapers and guest houses offered cnn. Somebody asked him if he could bring a copy of The Lion King video on his next visit. The outside world is slowly starting to filter in. One reason is the exposure to foreign aid workers in the capital. North Korea's recent move to expand diplomatic ties will bring in still more foreigners. Engagement with the South can only accelerate that process. The leadership is trying to control the pace,says Quinones. The question is, how long will they be able to control it?

For now, the ball is in Chairman Kim's court. President Kim has gone out on a limb to bring the North in from the cold, urging the U.S. to end sanctions (it lifts them this week) and traveling to the Chairman's home turf for the summit. Warm handshakes and bear hugs are a good beginning, but now Kim Jong Il has to deliver, starting with family reunions and a return visit to Seoul. The North Korean leader has promised to visit but has not said when. I told Chairman Kim he must come to Seoul since an elderly person like me came all the way to Pyongyang, the President told a cabinet meeting on his return. In Seoul, Kim Jong Il won't be able to stage-manage the show as he did at home. But he can do plenty to reassure the audience.

With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul, Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing, Douglas Waller/Washington and Charles Wallace/Berlin