SEOUL — When the two leaders of the two Koreas meet for the first time in Pyongyang in less than two weeks, the possibility of creating conditions for genuine reconciliation will also come into play for the first time.
The downside, however, is that expectations for success could rapidly outstrip results, and we will lose sight of the fact that the mere agreement to hold a summit is a historic step forward and a move away from the possibility of renewed hostilities on the peninsula.
Indeed, by concluding preliminary arrangements on an agenda, security, communications and protocol in a businesslike manner and in an atmosphere of give and take, the two Koreas have already broken new ground, demonstrating a willingness and capacity to deal with each other civilly after years of hostility.
At the same time, however, it is wise to acknowledge that substantive gaps will continue to exist after the summit. Not only are the two Koreas playing to different audiences, but the summit is based on competing frames of reference that reflect divergent views of the Korean problem.
Although the South agreed that the 1972 Joint Communique should serve as the basic guideline for the meeting, the 1991 Basic Agreement comes closer to its conception of a meaningful basis for a new relationship. This will affect the summit.
Any analysis of summit expectations must begin with an understanding of the two documents. Signed two decades apart, they are poles apart in terms of perception of the Korean problem and its solution.
For the North, the 1972 communique, with its pledge for a great national unity transcending political ideology and social system — peacefully and without foreign (read U.S.) interference — is paramount, with a united Korea the goal.
The South prefers the 1991 agreement, believing that the starting point should be coexistence and dialogue between two separate states leading to reconciliation with exchange and cooperation paving the way. The importance of the 1972 communique lies in its statement of the policy goal, while the importance of the 1991 agreement lies in the method for achieving it.
While both stances have merit, the difference in emphasis is crucial: whether it is better to work from ultimate goals down to specific measures or vice versa. Today, there isn’t enough consensus between the two Koreas to create a single Korean state, and there won’t be for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it’s hard to see how the 1972 Joint Communique alone is sufficient to complete the task. In short, a bottom-up, nonthreatening, step-by-step approach, which the South has always favored to build trust and confidence, would appear to be the most promising route to follow.
In this regard, the 1991 Basic Agreement provides for four different committees (political, military, economic and cultural) corresponding to four distinct functional areas where tangible progress needs to be made. By contrast, the Joint Communique provides for only a single North-South Coordinating Committee. The Berlin Declaration, the basis for the North’s positive response, is a variant of the 1991 Basic Agreement, highlighting economic cooperation, family exchange, a peace mechanism (more properly left to the four-party talks) and last, the opening of a regular channel for dialogue. However, while it may have helped to trigger a positive response from Pyongyang, it does not accurately reflect the North Korean view of what the summit is about.
What is at issue, in the end, is which framework will prevail and the possibilities for melding the two. How much can the South compromise on the inclusion of fundamental political and security issues such as weapons of mass destruction, a peace treaty and the future of U.S. forces in the formal agenda? How much can the North compromise on family visitations and economic cooperation that would involve meaningful contact between North and South Koreans as well as structural change as a condition for providing long-term assistance?
It all comes down to whether a third way can be found, building on previous efforts and transcending old Cold War rhetoric. Here, the personal chemistry between the two leaders will count for a great deal. It must be sufficient to at least make a dent in the ideological divide between the two nations for the summit to bear any fruit.
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