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Tears for Fears?

Asiaweek Pictures
Aidam Foster-Carter
analyzes Korea at Leeds University, Britain. He has followed North Korean affairs for over 30 years.

Korea has a peace process, but it still faces many pitfalls

The tears are off our TV screens now. In private they flow still. Was it kind, or cruel, to give a handful of Korea's millions of separated families a few hours to catch up on a half-century apart? Precedent answers. Last time, in 1985, those so briefly reunited couldn't even phone or write thereafter. I call that state sadism: an art long practiced in Pyongyang, but Seoul too did its share in the past. Some nerve they have.

Fifteen years on, we hope for better. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, in expansive mood while lunching southern media moguls, suggested a repeat in September and October. Great idea. Make that November, December, and so on ad infinitum. And next time, allow visits to home towns and graves — minus minders and press. Besides visiting, let the people write — right now. And telephone. (A North-South fiber optic cable, with 300 lines plus data and video feeds, has just been installed at Panmunjom.)

But steady. One step at a time. What's for sure is that Korea, like Israel/Palestine and Northern Ireland, now has a peace process. Those parallels suffice to remind us both how big a step this is, and how small. Engagement is progress: jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and may ward it off. Yet the road to true peace is long, tough, and fierce.

That's why I can't march behind either of the big-character banners now being waved. Peace in our time, already? Sorry, it takes a lot more than hugs on the tarmac in Pyongyang, or cocktail chat at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok. That's just the handshake on the White House lawn. When the Koreas reach the shouting stage, like that fierce fortnight at Camp David in July, then we'll know they're getting someplace.

Kim Dae Jung is right to start with the easier stuff. But I fear he made a wrong call in trading family reunions — reciprocal by definition — for the return of 62 old communist spies and such, who'll head north on Sept. 2 to a propaganda welcome. Meanwhile, thousands of South Koreans who've languished in the North for decades aren't even on Seoul's agenda. What must North Korea infer about southern priorities and resolve?

The same goes for the long list of rogueries — or "concerns" in the State Department's new lingo-lite — with which Pyongyang has pestered the planet for many years. Nukes, missiles, terrorism, drugs, debt . . . None of it's nice, but in a real peace process it all has to go on the table, not be swept under the carpet. The U.S. is pressing on missiles, and will press more under a Republican president. Kim Jong Il needs to show he's willing on some of this, and soon. Obscure offers to swap missiles for satellite launches, later dismissed as just a jest, suggest that the "Dear Leader" has a lot to learn about statesmanship. Hopefully Kim Dae Jung will teach him.

Yet the Right's tired mantra, that North Korea will never change, is just as wrong and twice as dangerous. A Bush presidency carries real risks for Korea, if the hawks have his ear. (Otherwise, don't George W. and Kim Jong Il have something in common?) Republicans who trash Clinton — and implicitly Kim Dae Jung — as appeasers forget that Clinton initially took a hard line and nearly started a second Korean War in May 1994. Macho posturing from across the Pacific is easy, but undermining your Korean ally would be grossly irresponsible. The dire nonsense of so-called National Missile Defense threatens to cause enough regional havoc as it is. The best person to de-fang North Korea is Kim Dae Jung. Trust him, and back him up.

Why? Because things are already changing. Work starts next month to relink severed railways across the Demilitarized Zone. Better yet, Hyundai is to build a vast export zone in, and run tour buses to, Kaesong, an ancient capital just over the border that will become to Seoul as Shenzhen is to Hong Kong. For the DMZ to shift from front line to front door de facto starts to address security issues: mine-clearing in the South, and the Korean People's Army swapping guns for rails. Once the peace train is running, it will be hard to derail. (So please will someone lend Hyundai the money?)

Another huge change is the self-outing of the reclusive Kim Jong Il. In three months, he has met three heads of state — Russia and China, besides South Korea — and wowed southern TV viewers. This has to be risky, once the mystique wears off. Transcripts of his Aug. 12 lunch with Seoul's media bosses suggest an oddball, a master of spin — and a bold radical. Thus he spoke of a long overdue Korean Workers Party congress due this fall, to announce a new turn — which he said could entail purging officials close to his late father Kim Il Sung.

Such startling talk to what the North used to call the "reptile press" — they now pledge to avoid mutual slander, rasing fears of self-censorship in Seoul — suggests the "Dear Leader" is using his unchallengeable authority at home to drag his country into a whole new phase. If he can bring that off, better late than never (pity about the million-odd who had to die of famine first). Then one day the two Kims may pick up a joint Nobel peace prize in Oslo. No way are we there yet, with many mountains still to cross. But at least, and at last, the long march has begun.

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