In a long-awaited development, the governments of North Korea and South Korea announced Monday that they would hold their first-ever presidential summit June 12 to 14 in Pyongyang. This meeting is a victory for the “sunshine” policy of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and could fundamentally change the political dynamic in this part of the world. All nations must rally behind Mr. Kim and his efforts to build an enduring peace between the two Koreas. But there are good reasons to be cautious. There is ample time for the agreement to come unraveled.
How and why North Korea makes its decisions are unknown. That means the motives for the agreement and the timing of the announcement are unclear. But one thing is certain: It could not have been better timed for Mr. Kim. The country holds parliamentary elections Thursday, and his Millennium Democratic Party is in a dead heat with the opposition Grand National Party. The summit news is a big boost to the MDP’s prospects, prompting carefully worded allegations that the government is playing politics with South Korea’s national security. That cynicism is understandable, given revelations about previous attempts by the Korean security services to manipulate events on the eve of elections to strengthen the then-ruling party.
The South Korean election could have figured in Pyongyang’s thinking as well. The timing could be a signal by North Korean government that it prefers the current administration in Seoul. It might also have reckoned that providing Mr. Kim with a gift of this magnitude would make him even more amenable to Pyongyang’s demands at the meeting.
The prospect of substantial aid from the South must loom large in North Korean thinking. The country is an economic basket case. Decades of mismanagement have left the government unable to feed its own people. In a March 9 speech, Mr. Kim said he was ready to offer large-scale aid to help build North Korean infrastructure and its battered agricultural sector in return for reopening the inter-Korean dialogue.
The timing makes sense from another perspective. North Korea has been engaged in a diplomatic blitz in recent months. Talks with Japan are resuming, overtures have been made to other nations, and Pyongyang and Italy recently established diplomatic relations. In each case, North Korea has been told that it should resume the inter-Korean dialogue. It may have realized that the failure to do so could no longer be ignored.
Finally, the decision could reflect the strength and self-confidence of North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Mr. Kim Jong Il. His decision to meet with his South Korean counterpart shows he is ready to take up his father’s legacy: Kim Il Sung was scheduled to meet South Korea’s then-president, Mr. Kim Young Sam, in 1994, but died before the summit could take place.
Those many unknowns demand caution when evaluating this week’s news. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be drawn. First, patient diplomacy pays off. Despite the ups and downs of the last two years — including spy incursions and gun battles at sea — Mr. Kim has stuck to his sunshine policy. He has endured heavy criticism, but his commitment to dialogue seems to have been rewarded. At the same time, Mr. Kim did not back down when his country’s national interests were at stake. When the North threatened a military confrontation, he was unyielding.
Second, the North’s posturing is not what it seems. Only last week, Pyongyang’s negotiators were saying that the time is not ripe for talks between the two Koreas. In fact, secret discussions were proceeding. All diplomacy is best conducted in private, but the gap between the public pronouncements and actual positions seems extraordinarily large when dealing with North Korea. For example, despite repeated statements that it would only negotiate with the South when U.S. military forces had been withdrawn from the peninsula, North Korea has apparently agreed to talk without preconditions. This gap means that it is imperative that all nations negotiating with Pyongyang coordinate their diplomacy.
Finally, despite the bluster, it is possible to do business with North Korea. That is the lesson of the nuclear deal that was struck with the United States, and it has been reinforced this week. Pyongyang has flouted many rules of international society, and encouraged other governments to think it is a rogue nation. Every indication, however, is that the North’s leadership is rational and calculating. Having understood that there is only one way to achieve its goals of getting substantial economic assistance — commencing talks with Seoul — it has done just that. Now that promise must be fulfilled.
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