A Reason for Hope in the Koreas

The recent announcement of an unprecedented summit meeting scheduled for June 2000 in Pyongyang between the heads of state of the two Koreas is perhaps the best news to come from the peninsula in the past 55 years. Korea was hastily partitioned into northern and southern zones of occupation by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945 in what was meant to be a temporary arrangement. Since then, the division has taken on a nightmarish life of its own, perpetuated by the U.S.-Soviet Cold War animosity, an intense and destructive civil war and decades of political and ideological rivalry between the Democratic People's Republic to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south. Both claim total and exclusive legitimacy over all the Korean people. Tens of thousands of Americans, Chinese and others--as well as literally millions of Koreans--have suffered or died as a result of this division, and it continues to fester as a source of potential conflict and instability in one of the most economically dynamic and important regions of the world.

The most encouraging aspect of the summit announcement is the hope it engenders that the North is finally willing to engage its Southern counterpart in a serious and constructive dialogue that may open the door to reconciliation and wide-ranging exchange. At the least, the dialogue will promote peaceful coexistence. It may even provide the first real stepping stone toward a more distant and challenging prospect of peaceful reunification.

Both Korean leaders must be praised for this effort. Since assuming office in 1998, President Kim Dae Jung has steadfastly pursued a bold and consistent "sunshine" policy of engagement with North Korea--despite considerable criticism from his political opponents.

In the North, too, Marshal Kim Jong Il's decision to engage at this level with the South can surely not have been reached without considerable debate and probably dissent within the ruling circle. In that regard it is undoubtedly fortunate that Kim's father, the late Kim Il Sung, whose revered name and ideology still provides legitimacy for all policy, agreed in 1994 to a summit meeting with Kim Dae Jung's predecessor, Kim Young Sam. Although Kim Il Sung died before the summit could be held, he nevertheless left his crucial stamp of approval on the summit idea.

One must also credit the Clinton administration's policy of patient engagement with the North, as reflected in the 1994 Agreed Framework. In addition, America has insisted that progress in U.S.-North Korean relations must be predicated on the North's improving relations with South Korea.

There is no shortage of skepticism about North Korean motives with regard to the summit. Some see this as merely another hollow gesture on the part of the North toward the South, designed not to initiate a substantive dialogue but only to live up to the letter of the Agreed Framework in order to maximize aid from the United States. Some, particularly those from South Korea, even suggest that the wording of the agreement, which calls for a summit between "heads of state" without specifically naming Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung, leaves open the possibility that the North intends to humiliate the South by producing in the end only its titular head of state, the President of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yongnam. To give the doubters their due, one must say that no one truly knows for sure what lies in the minds of North Korea's leaders. And the North's policies of interaction with the outside world over the years have been punctuated with not a few inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, the best hope for peace, reconciliation and political and economic development lies in a dialogue between the two Koreas. If North Korea's signals to the South have been mixed, so were the Soviet Union's to the United States in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. President John F. Kennedy '40, heeding his brother's advice, chose to respond to the more positive of two messages emanating from Moscow. President Kim Dae Jung in this case has wisely done the same, and we would all do well to follow his lead. As in 1962, the risks of optimism are low, the gains are high and the alternatives are too dreadful to contemplate.

Carter J. Eckert is Professor of Korean History and Director of the Korea Institute.