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HONG KONG — Perhaps it is in the nature of joint declarations that their merits tend to be exaggerated. The British did it with their joint declaration with China regarding Hong Kong, the Indians did it with their joint declaration with Pakistan at Lahore. Now the South Koreans, plus many foreigners who should know better, are following suit. The first ever document signed by the leaders of both North and South Korea is already being oversold as a “landmark pact” and a “historic agreement” setting the two Koreas on the “road to reunification.”

Last week’s relief was understandable. But did the summit justify euphoria?

The reality remains that the joint declaration signed by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il raises more questions than it answers.

First, the summit document was only a joint declaration, a relatively low form of diplomatic format, usually used by nations when they prefer to affirm general principles without tying themselves down to specifics. What has been produced at this summit is not even a joint communique, still less a joint agreement — though that has not stopped sensation-seeking media from hailing it as such.

Second, the two Koreas have sought to finesse the very real differences that divide the communist North from the democratic South by asserting an undefined but racially assertive Korean nationalism vis-a-vis the rest of the world. This intent comes across clearly in the first of five points in the Pyongyang Declaration — “The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.”

As a political tactic, this is understandable. As a strategic objective, it is questionable — especially for South Korea. Once the South joins with the North in emotionally asserting nationalism and independence, the North Koreans have a perfectly valid excuse for asking once again: Why retain U.S. troops on your side of the demilitarized zone? Why sustain close relations with the United States and Japan? Since the summit, the North has renewed this pressure.

Third, the imprecise language that characterizes joint declarations is again illustrated when the two sides declare that “there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agree to promote reunification in that direction.”

What possible direction can that be? The North’s frequently articulated concept of federation leaves the Kim communist dynasty in charge of the whole of Korea, a position with which a democratic South is never likely to agree.

Fourth, the crucial issue for South Koreans, on which many will judge the summit, concerns the reunion of separated families. Given the deep emotions aroused by this issue, some specific pledge was required.

Yet all the two leaders could agree on in Pyongyang was to “promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day.”

This hardly suggests due and sustained resolution of a vexed problem. Families need to be reunited every day of the year, not just one day. All that can happen on Aug. 15 is that a token couple of hundred of relatives from both sides will have reunions in the truce village of Panmunjom.

Token exchanges are not what Kim Dae Jung was supposed to obtain. Yet while the South did not get what it wants, the North Koreans did win a Southern promise to resolve “the question of unswerving communists serving long prison sentences in the South.”

Presumably, the South did not raise the question of those Southerners taken to the North against their will and held there. There are also reportedly several thousand South Korean prisoners of war who have as much right to return South as the unswerving communists have to go North.

Fifth, the Pyongyang Declaration vaguely promises “balanced development of the economy through economic cooperation,” more North-South exchanges in fields such as sports and culture, and “a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement (these) agreements expeditiously.”

Almost as if anticipating criticism, the Korean Overseas Information Service quickly issued an “analysis of the outcome of the summit,” detailing all the plans the government had in mind for the two Koreas, ranging from a military hotline between the two armies to a rebuilding of the Seoul to Pyongyang Railway.

But these are all unilateral assertions and do not appear in what was actually agreed to between North and South. Similarly, while after the summit, the South asserted that the two Koreas have agreed not to attack each other, there is not a word of any such promise in the Pyongyang Declaration.

The vague pledges in the Declaration could, of course, mean everything or nothing. If, as Kim Dae Jung says, a new day is dawning between the two Koreas, then the North and the South could decide on purposeful actions to demonstrate their good intent.

The hard fact remains that they have not yet done so.

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