MANILA — Politically, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s time is running out, and the alleged corruptive practices of his sons have accelerated the erosion of his authority tremendously. The recent thaw in inter-Korean relations may well be Kim’s last chance to improve his tarnished image.

No doubt, the president has always been concerned about his political legacy. It is an exceptional irony that the very institution created to preserve his political inheritance — the foundation bearing his name — has become the core of alleged corruption. While Kim has arguably done more to promote democracy and the market economy in South Korea than all his predecessors put together, his place in history will probably not be that of a domestic reformer.

Overshadowing his accomplishments at home have been his visionary moves toward North Korea. For many South Koreans who have given up hope that Kim’s “sunshine policy” will bear fruit, this may sound unacceptable.

Still, I believe history will show that there was no other rational method for overcoming hostility and achieving national reunification than the path devised by the beleaguered president.

According to the joint statement issued at Mount Kumgang last Sunday, ministers from both sides will convene in Seoul next week to discuss a list of bilateral issues, most of which have already been agreed upon in principle in earlier negotiations and are only waiting to be implemented. Does this herald a new chapter in inter-Korean relations? Considering the history, I will abstain from such optimistic assumptions at this stage.

Reading the statement issued after the recent meeting, I was reminded of similar inter-Korean announcements in the past. All have one thing in common: None was ever filled with life. In this sense, one may call inter-Korean relations a history of broken promises, or — in most cases — a history of broken North Korean promises.

Most analysts agree that what is often referred to as the erratic behavior of the leadership in Pyongyang is the main culprit for this unfortunate state of affairs. For the Communist leaders, unpredictability has become an essential strategic weapon in dealing with the outside world. Their lack of predictability is far from irrational; it is rational as long as it serves the main — and overriding — objective of the North Korean regime, which is the political survival of the present rulers.

This maxim of North Korean international relations must be considered for understanding Pyongyang’s foreign policy: The regime rejects any international engagements that may — directly or indirectly — endanger its stability. This, too, may explain the difficulties of the present U.S. administration in coming to terms with the North Koreans, who remain highly suspicious of the ulterior aims of the United States.

For sure, the Americans of the Bush administration have not given Pyongyang any assurances that they respect the regime and are not out to undermine it. Until this very day, no clear picture has emerged as to where Washington is aiming vis-a-vis the Communist regime. More than 1 1/2 years after its inception, the Bush administration is reportedly still bickering over a common strategy for confronting Pyongyang. On the one side we find the diplomats supporting nonconfrontational tactics; on the other side stand the hawks, who prefer the iron fist of military power when dealing with the “rogue states.”

For the moment, the diplomats and their champion, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, seem to have gained the upper hand regarding North Korea policy. The secretary’s recent encounter with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun was the first official contact between the two countries since President George W. Bush’s provocative “axis of evil” speech early this year.

The prospects of a reduction of tensions in U.S.-North Korean relations are good news for inter-Korean affairs. The recent history of North-South relations teaches that there is little chance for sustained improvement as long as tensions prevail in relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Politically, this puts the U.S. in the driver’s seat of developments on the Korean Peninsula.

In a way, Koreans on both sides of the divide have become political hostages of the Americans. This implies that the prospects for the future of inter-Korean ministerial talks set to begin early next week are very much also a variable of what happens in regards to Washington-Pyongyang rapprochement.

Will last Wednesday’s tete-a-tete between the two foreign ministers in Bandar Seri Begawan turn out to be more than a short-lived exercise in diplomacy? Only if this is so will inter-Korean relations have a true chance for substantial progress.

Apart from the renewed U.S. initiative, other factors make me guardedly optimistic this time. I am not thinking of the economic arguments that many observers say are the driving force behind Pyongyang’s opening to the Western world. Instead, I am thinking of political developments in South Korea. One of the main political variables in the strategic puzzle in and around the Korean Peninsula are the upcoming presidential elections in the South.

As is well known, President Kim Dae Jung’s days in power are numbered. The rulers in the North, too, will have noted that the main conservative contender and front-runner in the struggle for control of the Blue House has left no doubt that he will move away from the sunshine policy in favor of one guided by the principle of reciprocity. If Lee Hoi Chang means what he says and wins the elections, Seoul’s position toward the North may toughen in the coming year.

Considering that the present administration is still in power until next February, it is surely not too late for a dramatic breakthrough in inter-Korean affairs. A dramatic step forward would be for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to make true his promise to travel to Seoul for his reciprocal visit. He could be sure that Kim Dae Jung — and with him many peace-loving South Koreans — would give him a warm reception.

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