“Hold on to your hat. Korea is full of surprises,” Don Oberdorfer advises us in the conclusion to his recent book, “The Two Koreas.” And not since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew into Jerusalem more than two decades ago to mend fences with his arch rival, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and address the Israeli Knesset has there been a more improbable summit pairing.

Protocol would have dictated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pay a visit to his senior in Seoul. But he was spared that trip by South Korean President Kim Dae Jong’s previously stated willingness to meet the North Korean leader “anytime, any place.” This, along with Hyundai Chairman Chung Ju Yung’s earlier visit and precedent-setting meeting with the North Korean leader relieved him of the need to leave Pyongyang to make a gesture that might have been construed as paying penance to the leader of the stronger South.

What are the prospects for success for such a summit? It depends on how one defines success. It is unlikely that a half-century of encrusted hostility can be dissipated in one fell swoop. Nor, having pushed brinkmanship to the brink, has North Korea suddenly mellowed. Still, some modest improvements can be anticipated; there must be reciprocity if they are to be be successful.

The top of the list would include tension-reduction and confidence-building measures in the military realm in exchange for economic aid and assistance — a so-called grand bargain.

This would make sense for both Koreas. The North — in its current weakened condition — needs assurance that it need not fear being absorbed by the South. So it may view tension-reduction and confidence-building as being in its own interest as well. And clearly it needs all the economic aid and assistance it can get. The caveat is whether the process would spin out of control.

The greater the contact between North and South Koreans, the greater the probability of a loss of control. Yet, without such human contact, efforts at normalization, reconciliation and cooperation will be still-born. A related issue is the free flow of ideas and information in an age of globalization beyond the control of the state.

The bare-bones summit announcement gives few clues as to the details of the event, which will be held in Pyongyang from June 12 to 14. This might be attributable in part to the fact that the two Koreas simply have no experience to guide them. There has never been a summit before: One was planned for 1994 but it was canceled following the death of North Korea’s leader, Kim Il Sung, and the fall from grace of Korean President Kim Young Sam (in the North’s eyes) for not extending appropriate condolences on Kim’s demise.

However, the timing of the announcement suggests its motivation. Coming less than one month after Kim Dae Jung’s mid-March Berlin Declaration, that statement was probably decisive. By emphasizing the necessity of a governmental approach to economic relations between the two Koreas if they were to reach critical mass, the South both played to its strength as aid benefactor and relieved the North’s anxiety about being absorbed. And by sweetening the pot further by agreeing to provide 200,000 tons of fertilizer as a quid to improve the atmosphere for the talks, it placed the burden on the North to arrange a workable formula for family reunions in this jubilee year of the Korean War as quo.

Beyond that, increasing economic contact cannot go forward without government-to-government sanctioned procedures for financing and an agreed legal framework relating to management, production incentives and the like.

The two previous landmark inter-Korea agreements, the 1972 Joint Communique pledging unity “transcending ideology and social system” and the 1992 Basic Agreement on Nonaggression, Reconciliation, Exchange and Cooperation, were negotiated below the summit level, but both suffered from the same fatal flaw. They were paper agreements that could not be implemented.

The latter, in particular, while broad ranging and high-sounding in its determination to “remove the state of political and military confrontation” and achieve multifaceted exchange and cooperation,” was also very specific in delineating provisions for military tension reduction and confidence-building (e.g., the formation of a North-South Military Committee, a hotline for mutual notification and control of movements, phased reduction of forces, elimination of weapons of mass destruction), economic cooperation and cultural exchange, almost all of which have been ignored. The test of success for the upcoming summit will therefore be not what is agreed to on paper, but what is actually delivered.

Today, however, the diplomatic calculus is more complex since it involves the North’s efforts to normalize relations with the United States and Japan, both of which are premised on inter-Korean dialogue. What better way for the North to demonstrate a commitment to North-South dialogue than to host a summit in Pyongyang — even one that produces only minimal results?

The other factor is that efforts to normalize relations with the U.S. and Japan, as opposed to Italy, the Philippines and countries of secondary importance in terms of peace and stability on the peninsula, have run into greater difficulty than Pyongyang may have anticipated and therefore a bold step is now in order to see them to term.

In other words, a successful North-South summit could provide a major impetus to stalled U.S.-North Korean talks, protracted Japanese-North Korean talks and suspended four-party talks. It would be the political equivalent of a hole-in-one, a game-winning touchdown and a hat trick all rolled into one. And a new North Korea would be sure to claim at least half the credit.

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