All eyes will focus next week on Pyongyang for the June 12-14 historic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il. Last week’s surprise visit to Beijing by the reclusive North Korean leader has added to the drama. While these events provide cause for optimism, the exuberance sweeping over the Korean Peninsula is premature.

A quick review of the not-too-distant past can help put current events in perspective. Last year at this time, a maritime border confrontation was shaping up off the peninsula’s west coast that culminated in the sinking of a North Korean ship. War drums were beating and the rhetoric was intense. Meanwhile, the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang over DPRK missile tests was heating up: The North was adamant about pursuing its sovereign right to develop, test and deploy long-range missiles. The U.S. inspection of the suspect nuclear site at Kumchang-ri did little to reduce suspicions about the North’s nuclear intentions, and the visit to Pyongyang by former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry left him, among others, pessimistic about Pyongyang’s willingness to respond favorably to a combined U.S.-South Korean-Japanese formula for enhanced cooperation.

The situation has changed dramatically. Today, North-South cooperation is more reminiscent of 1991-1992, when the two sides negotiated a yet-to-be-implemented Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchange and Cooperation and a companion Joint Declaration on a Non-Nuclear Korean Peninsula, amid summit discussions. That this earlier period of reconciliation proved so fragile should be a sobering reminder of the challenges that lie ahead.

A variety of factors contributed to the agreement to hold the long-awaited summit, not the least of which has been the North Korean diplomatic “charm offensive” that has seen Pyongyang establish, re-establish or markedly improve relations with a host of nations.

Yet the primary credit must go to President Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” and his courageous and persistent efforts to reach out to the North. Kim’s balanced approach — he has pledged that South Korea does not intend to absorb North Korea and will actively promote exchanges and cooperation, even while asserting that the South will not tolerate armed provocations of any kind — provided North Korea with its best (and seemingly safest) opportunity to date to engage the South cautiously.

The sense of euphoria in the South notwithstanding, the summit is not the moral equivalent of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; it more closely resembles the early days of the Helsinki Process, which began the long and difficult road to German reunification. It remains unclear whether Pyongyang’s willingness to reach out to the South represents a shift in tactics or a more fundamental change in North Korean thinking.

Some would argue that the mere fact that the meeting is being held makes it a success. But there are other measures of success that could further demonstrate both side’s commitment to genuine rapprochement, including: agreement on an early reciprocal visit by Kim Jong Il to Seoul; a commitment to develop meaningful confidence- and trust-building measures; serious discussion of first steps toward mutual and balanced military force reductions, if not peninsula-wide, then at least in the vicinity of the demilitarized zone; and the implementation of the long-delayed reunion of families separated since the Korean War.

While Kim Jong Il’s surprise visit to Beijing last week is widely assessed as being related to the summit, official insights into the visit have been limited, with the Chinese simply announcing that the two sides “reached consensus on major issues of common concern.”

If consensus was reached on Pyongyang’s adoption of the Chinese model of economic reform, this would represent a genuine commitment to fundamental economic reform. Chinese interlocutors for months now have been signaling that such a change was imminent. For “socialism with ‘juche’ characteristics” to be successful, however, foreign economic investment and assistance will be required and South Korea is the most logical source. This, combined with the need to keep the current generous flow of assistance flowing, could help explain Kim Jong Il’s willingness to court the South. Meanwhile, Kim’s admission that “[China’s] policy of opening up to the outside world is correct” could set the stage for a limited and more tightly controlled attempt to follow the Chinese example.

One suspects that security-related topics were also on the agenda. Kim and Chinese President Jiang Zemin share a desire for U.S. forces to leave the peninsula, at least by the time of reunification and preferably before. Pyongyang insists that they leave now, but North Korea must understand that this extreme bargaining position will continue to be completely unacceptable to Seoul and Washington. I suspect that China continues to provide moral support to the North’s position nonetheless.

I hope that Chinese security guarantees to North Korea were also discussed. Given the strictly defensive nature of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, it is no doubt difficult for many in the West to believe that North Korea genuinely fears a U.S. attack. However, from Pyongyang’s perspective, events like Iraq and Kosovo provide cause for concern. Without U.S. security guarantees, South Korea’s leadership would be hesitant to enter into direct dialogue with the North. It is reasonable to expect, therefore, that Pyongyang would like a similar security blanket and this can most credibly (and perhaps only) be given by Beijing.

Growing trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan also appears to have helped bring about the North-South summit. The so-called Perry Process — the drive to develop a coordinated policy among the U.S., South Korea and Japan toward North Korea — made it clear to Pyongyang that it could not cut a separate deal with the U.S. when it came to peace on the peninsula. Perry’s trip to Pyongyang reinforced this message, while the establishment of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group institutionalized the three-way cooperative process and reduced Pyongyang’s ability to play one side against the others. This may have contributed to the North’s decision to deal directly with the South.

Whatever Pyongyang’s motives, the summit seems likely to be a positive, cordial event with more than pro forma meetings between the two Kims. It will hopefully usher in a new era of increased cooperation and tension-reduction measures; actions that will not guarantee but could at least set the stage for North-South reconciliation and eventual reunification . . . if North Korea is truly ready and willing and feels secure enough to engage fully in the peace process.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.