• SHARE

It has been a historic week on the Korean Peninsula. The summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, Mr. Kim Jong Il and Mr. Kim Dae Jung, has surpassed all expectations. It is tempting to say that the two men are writing the final chapter of the Cold War, but the temptation should be resisted. The meeting has altered the political dynamic on the peninsula, but the changes are still only in the air. Now the real work begins: translating the giddy atmosphere into concrete accomplishments.

From the moment that South Korea’s President Kim stepped onto the tarmac in Pyongyang, surprises were in store. The personal reception by his North Korean counterpart was unscripted and unprecedented. The ease with which the North Korean leader bantered with Mr. Kim and his revelations of travels abroad were a stunning repudiation of his image as a dour recluse.

It was generally agreed that the summit would be judged a success if Mr. Kim Jong Il agreed to visit Seoul in return. And he did, although the final communique said he would visit “at the appropriate time.” But there was much more to celebrate. The two men agreed to allow visits on Aug. 15 for an unspecified number of the 1.2 million members of families that have been separated since the Korean War. President Kim of South Korea has made this a priority issue. He is especially concerned about elderly Korean War survivors, an estimated 260,000 of whom are over 70.

The two leaders also agreed to address other human-rights problems, narrow the gap between their two economies and increase cooperation and exchanges in several fields. Both countries pledged to work “independently” on “common ground” toward “the sublime desire for the peaceful unification of their fatherland.” Seoul also pledged to resolve the fate of 23 long-imprisoned North Korean spies or sympathizers who have been released but not permitted to travel to the North.

The agreements are long on principles, longer still on hopes, but short on specifics. And that is where the real challenge lies. The shock felt by many South Koreans is proof of the gap that still divides the two countries. The glowing evaluations of the meeting have obscured the fact that the two countries are technically still at war. The peninsula was divided over a half century ago, but their leaders had never met before this week. Mutual suspicions have dominated the relationship, and the presence of nearly 1.7 million soldiers facing off across a heavily armed demilitarized zone has created one of the world’s most dangerous flash points.

The summit took place in an atmosphere of reconciliation and friendship that many people thought would be impossible to achieve. Indeed, South Korean officials went out of their way to deflate expectations in the leadup to the meeting to ensure that things did not get off track before they began. The scrutiny of every detail and the relentless search for clues to the participants’ real intentions and meaning suggests that there will be ample opportunity for opponents of peace to make trouble.

Japan will not have the luxury of watching this high-risk performance from the sidelines. Pyongyang has launched an aggressive diplomatic offensive that has paid dividends in addition to the summit. Mr. Kim Jong Il’s recent trip to Beijing and the scheduled visit to North Korea by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July underscore the lack of progress that Japan has made with Pyongyang. In April, our two countries held full-scale talks for the first time in seven years on establishing diplomatic relations, but they ended in stalemate. Unlike other countries, Japan has outstanding issues with North Korea — the alleged kidnapping of Japanese nationals, the legacy of the Japanese occupation of Korea, to name two — that must be addressed.

Directly and indirectly, Japan will be drawn into the diplomacy. Unification — no matter how gradual — will be costly, and Japan will be expected to shoulder some of that burden. Bilateral aid will be part of the effort, as will assistance to South Korea and multilateral pledges that utilize the Asian Development Bank and other lending institutions.

Direct talks between the two Koreas pose a challenge to the successful trilateral coordination that has included Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. The United States may no longer have to speak for South Korea, but the need for close consultation between the three countries remains as strong as ever. Each government must keep its partners informed of developments and work to ensure that there is no room to exploit differences between the three. This week’s summit may open a new chapter in relations between the two Koreas, but Pyongyang can be relied upon to do everything it can to maximize its leverage.

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.

SUBSCRIBE NOW