SEOUL — Both North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, the younger host, and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, his older guest, have come off last week’s world-dazzling summit with a bounce. But can they keep the momentum going?
Converting this impressive symbolic achievement into real change, actually implementing reconciliation through cooperation, will require leadership of a high order from the two Kims, who head two very different political systems.
The outcome could indeed differ from that of the two previous inter-Korean agreements in 1972 and 1991, not just because they were signed by the top leaders, but because the ambience of an “open summit,” free from lengthy diplomatic wrangling or secret envoys, signals that this time it was meant for the history books, not the scrap books.
Caution is still in order. Although both systems have strong leaders, leadership is exercised in different ways. A totalitarian system, as in the North, can snap back again with a vengeance. It is also difficult for such a system to cope with the stress of radical change. The leader’s support base, while wide, is brittle.
Kim Dae Jung has a different problem. He is a minority president, facing powerful conservative opposition to rapprochement with the North. Moreover, the country is once again approaching the anniversary of the start of the Korean War by the very same North with which the South Korean president seeks to reconcile, but which has never admitted responsibility for launching hostilities.
Not only are the memories of that war still fresh, but the causes of the war are still extant. It began with political and ideological warfare dating back to the early years of the century, when a Western-oriented Korean provisional government-in-exile took up residence in Chungking, while communist cadres trained with Mao Zedong’s guerrillas in remote corners of China and, with Josef Stalin’s backing, in the Soviet Far East. And although Soviet and U.S. forces divided the peninsula at mid-century, it was the political divide between Korean factions — left and right — that perpetuated the division. Each power made common cause with the faction mirroring its own political ideology: U.S. “grassroots” democracy and Soviet-style “people’s democracy.” However, the Koreans themselves were far from docile followers and must bear a measure of responsibility for division, which has survived the end of the Cold War.
Removing those causes is critical to ending the Cold War structure on the peninsula, a key goal of Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy. The two systems are about as different as can be found on the planet, or at least within the same culture. Yet enlightened leadership and a common culture are the two main pillars on which reconciliation can be built.
If the summit was a triumph of form over substance, it cannot be certified a success unless substance is the result — and sooner rather than later. The two Kims stand today as two claimants to the mantle of Korean leadership. But the mantle can only be shared between two such disparate systems if they begin to converge on the basis of a common culture and shared identity.
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