January 28, 2020
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Kimming The Surface

The historic meeting of Kim Jong-il and Kim Da e-jung raises euphoria, as well as fresh doubts

Kimming The Surface

When Kim, a 72-year-old South Korean, first learned the two Koreas had reached an agreement for a first-ever summit last April, he dismissed it as another political show. A far cry from any real step to help realise his personal dream of meeting his two younger sisters after five decades. "Many people believe the coming inter-Korean summit would open the way for family reunions, but no way," says the man, who even refused to reveal his full name out of concerns that it might endanger his sisters somewhere in North Korea.

He's partly right. The summit was a grandiose political show, well-orchestrated by Kim Jong-il, chairman of North Korea's National Defence Commission, who has ruled the hermit state since the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in July 1994. About 6,00,000 citizens of Pyongyang, North Korea's capital of about 3 million, were mobilised to the streets to frantically greet South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, once described as the leader of a "puppet regime" manipulated by the US.

North Korean leader Kim, a known movie buff, made the historic event more dramatic by unilaterally putting off President Kim's departure for Pyongyang by one day, making South Korean officials shudder at the thought of a possible cancellation. But he jolted the world by showing up at Sunan Airport on the outskirts of Pyongyang to greet Kim, a rare foray into the international spotlight.

Given that the two Koreas have been locked in a tense truce without any telephone links or mail service between them since their fratricidal war from 1950 to 1953, Kim's appearance and a lavish welcoming ceremony came as a shock to many South Koreans. Just a year ago, the two Koreas fought bloody naval skirmishes off the Korean peninsula's west coast, leaving tens of North Korean seamen dead or injured.

"The hermit kingdom's become the hyperactive kingdom," US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Stanley Roth said in a recent press meet. "It's too early to say that North Korea has reformed but I think certainly its diplomacy is changing. That seems to reflect a decision that it has to change for the country's well-being," he added. Even today, North Korea has not completely shed its image of a pariah state or a state sponsor of terrorism which is subject to harsh trade embargoes by the US.

For North Korea, which sent shockwaves across the world by test-firing a multi-stage ballistic missile in August 1998, the revenue coming from its missile sales is a significant part of its state budget. "Although official estimation on the size of secret missile deals is not available, North Korea is believed to be netting tens of millions of dollars each year from missile sales," says a South Korean foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. However, the official noted that it cannot be a durable income source because of the seasonal and annual fluctuations, as North Korea is forced to make secret deals and shipments without the US' knowledge.

So it is premature to presume that North Korea would give up its missile programmes without lavish compensation from the US, which is struggling to stop Pyongyang's missile programs via bilateral negotiations. But after years of US-North Korea dialogue on missile non-proliferation making no tangible progress, North Korea was forced to drop its US-centred diplomacy.

"To supporters, the summit is a dramatic breakthrough, a seizing of Korean diplomatic initiative after seven years of US-centred diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, a coup and vindication for Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy," says Robert Manning, director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a recent article in a South Korean newspaper, he noted, "Seoul is making three important promises to Pyongyang to guarantee their national security, assist their economic recovery and actively support them in the international arena."

Seoul's intentions on economic aid were crystallised into the South-North Joint Declaration, a landmark deal reached in Pyongyang between the two leaders during the June 13-15 summit. The declaration, inter alia, calls for a balanced development of the two Koreas' economies via economic cooperation. As North Korea's economy is tiny compared to that of South Korea, which emerged as the world's 11th largest trading nation, the declaration heralds a large-scale funnelling of economic aid to bridge the enormous gap between them.

The joint declaration also envisions the exchange of family members separated since the Korean War on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day, heightening the hopes of family reunions for 12,30,000 first-generation Southerners who have family members in North Korea. Although modalities of family reunions should be further studied by working-level officials, many experts here fear that North Korea would not authorise large-scale family meetings out of concerns that it would jeopardise the survival of its system. In 1985, when the two Koreas reached a dramatic deal on family reunions, only 50 families each from the two Koreas were allowed to visit their estranged kinspeople and relatives across the border.

Thanks to the Pyongyang summit, these is a rising possibility that Kim Jong-il might visit South Korea, thus turning inter-Korean summit talks into a regular event. The reciprocal visit is expected to serve as a decisive step leading to rapprochement between the two Koreas, which are still technically at war.

Meanwhile, summit fever has already gripped Seoul. A caricature of North Korean leader Kim is now printed on everything from T-shirts to mugs, a phenomenon unthinkable barely two months ago. Even television commercials and shows feature South Korean actors pretending to be North Koreans with strong Northern dialects, turning the once-enemy state into the hottest marketing tool. "Prior to an inter-Korean agreement on the summit, we barely sold North Korea-related books," says a staffer at Kyobo Book Center, the largest book retailer in Seoul. "But recently, a new book on North Korea topped the bestseller list."

But a North Korea expert here dismisses the agreement as "nothing new". Contends Prof Kim Young-soo of Yonsei University, "The new agreement didn't go beyond the 1991 Basic Agreement between the two Koreas." In fact, the two Koreas produced the agreement, called a "unification roadmap", but the ensuing tension, caused by North Korea's secret weapons programs, turned the document into trash. "But what is noteworthy is that the signatories of the agreement were upgraded into the highest-level officials. So it would help improve ties between the two Koreas if the leaders' determination is translated into tangible steps in the future," he says.

In spite of Kim Jong-il's fresh debut on the diplomatic stage, his regime's future is still bleak as he has a long way to go before rebuilding his bankrupt state. And the outside world is still sceptical. Says Manning, "There are no signs that Pyongyang's slowing its effort to develop new long-range ballistic missiles. North Korean ties with Pakistan and possibly Libya and Iraq (through Sudan) also hint darkly of nuclear and missile cooperation. Nor are there any evident signs that Pyongyang's changed its stripes and has decided to open its failing economy by accelerating market reforms as was the case in China." That's the Kore of the problem.

Korea's story

  • US, Russian troops invade and divide the country, 1945
  • Korean War, 1950-53
  • India sends troops to Korea to form Custodian Force (India) under the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission, headed by Maj Gen K.S. Thimayya, 1953-54
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