The joint declaration signed between North Korea leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung during the latter’s just-concluded visit to Pyongyang is a truly historic document. It will, and should, require a complete reassessment of what is and is not possible regarding North-South reconciliation and reunification. It exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic forecasts and has satisfactorily addressed the top priority issue of both sides going into the summit. It does not, however, guarantee peace on the Peninsula.
I was in Seoul when President Kim arrived in Pyongyang. Rumors were rampant the night before the trip that the arrival ceremony would be momentous and include a plane-side meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Il, but few believed that this would actually occur. Most officials, and virtually all reporters and pundits, were watching for the inevitable subtle (or not so subtle) slights.
Instead, in a symbol of profound importance and seemingly sincere respect, there was the reclusive North Korean leader, smiling and warmly greeting President Kim and his entourage on the tarmac and then riding with his South Korean counterpart to his guest quarters. The self-confident North Korean leader was friendly, even jovial, and articulate throughout the summit, destroying many of the stereotypes placed on him over the years.
South Koreans that I talked to, included even the most hardened skeptics, were universally impressed. For the first time in their lifetimes, reunification suddenly appeared possible. This was particularly touching for the original residents of the North who had longed to see separated family members with whom they had had virtually no contact since the Korean War.
But no one I talked to that first day believed there would be early movement on this South Korean top-priority issue. While family reunions once again seemed possible, it would be subjected to long, torturous negotiations; separated family visits would not come anytime soon.
As a result, the joint declaration pledge to “promptly resolve” the separated family issue, which seemed to set Aug. 15 (National Liberation Day) as a target date, must be viewed, from the South’s domestic perspective, as the most tangible immediate benefit of the summit. Even if nothing else had been accomplished, progress on this issue would have been sufficient to proclaim the summit a complete success.
As expected, the North’s top priority, enhanced economic cooperation, was also achieved but, significantly, the pledge for “development of the national economy” included a pledge to stimulate cooperation “in all fields,” opening the door for greater social and cultural exchanges, as called for in President Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” toward the North. This raises hope that Kim Jong Il has indeed made the decision to begin opening up his “hermit kingdom” to the outside world.
The two leaders also agreed “to resolve the question of reunification independently” and acknowledged that their respective proposals for a confederation or loose federation system provided a common element upon which to build toward eventual reunification. It also seems clear that when Koreans talk of reunification today, they are not talking about the creation, any time soon, of one central government or a common authority ruling North and South. It is more a “one Korean nation, two Korean states or governments” that is envisioned, at least for the immediate future. Peaceful coexistence between the two existing states appears to be the mutually accepted and desired first step in the reunification process.
Media references to the declaration as an unprecedented agreement between two “former enemies,” while perhaps an accurate reflection of the atmosphere of surrounding the summit, are technically inaccurate. A state of war still exists between both sides and the Korean Peninsula remains one of the most heavily fortified and potentially dangerous places on Earth.
In this regard, the joint declaration is also important for what it does not say. Nowhere in the document is there reference to “normalization of relations” or to the signing of a North-South Peace Treaty to formally bring the Korean War to a close. President Kim and Kim Yong Nam, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, reportedly discussed the possibility of opening representative offices in each other’s capital, but this is still a long way from establishing formal diplomatic ties.
Discussions with North Korean representatives at an international confernce in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia following the Joint Declaration’s release were sobering. A North Korean statement — which included two pages of harsh criticism against the presence of U.S. forces in the South which, “in the interest of friendship and cooperation” were not read aloud during the oral presentation — continued to talk of the need for a U.S.-North Korea Peace Treaty, while acknowledging the need and praising the recent efforts toward reconciliation and reunification between the two Koreas. The South Korean view that the stage has now been set for a North-South Peace Treaty was not validated by northern counterparts. Continued North Korean insistence on a separate peace treaty with the United States (followed by withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Peninsula) is likely to remain a point of contention.
Also missing from the joint declaration is any reference to the development of military confidence-building measures or mutual and balanced force reductions between both sides. This is not surprising since these are highly sensitive, potentially contentious issues that can best be discussed once an atmosphere of cooperation and reconciliation has been better established. But, until these security issues are dealt with, the Peninsula remains a very dangerous place.
Many Korean pundits, in the context of the summit, have alluded to the old Korean proverb that “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.” All would agree that a giant step forward has been taken with President Kim’s historic visit. Kim Jong Il’s agreement to visit Seoul “at an appropriate time” will be an equally historic giant step, if and when it occurs. But, there are still miles to go before either side can truly rest easy.
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