Opportunism begets summit

Profits in peace: Presidents of divided Korea agree to top-level meeting after 55 years of hostilities.

April 11, 2000

ONE OF the last Cold War tinderboxes could be on the verge of peace after 55 years of hostilities.

News that the presidents of the two Koreas have agreed to hold a summit in June is momentous - even though pragmatic opportunism played a large role in making the breakthrough possible.

For South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, the summit accord may help win desperately needed support in Thursday's difficult parliamentary elections. The opposition Grand National Party was aghast. "No regime in history has turned to such a blunt and shameless trick to win an election," it said in a statement.

North Korean President Kim Jong Il needs the summit equally badly. He is trying to end decades of disastrous Stalinist isolation that has kept his country economically backward. In recent years, millions have starved there, while thriving South Korea has had no problem feeding its population.

Six years ago, his father, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung, agreed to meet with his South Korean counterpart. But he died of a heart attack just days before the summit, sending relations back to the deep freeze.

Yesterday's summit announcement came less than a week after North Korean and Japanese negotiators began landmark talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic ties. North Korea wants an apology and compensation for the Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945; Japan demands discussion of North Korea's ballistic missile program and other security concerns. South Korea and the United States have also voiced concerns about North Korea's missile production -- particularly because of reports that it is aiding Saddem Hussein's Iraq. Old hostilities and distrust are so deep that almost anything could derail the Koreas' tentative steps toward reconciliation. But for two countries that have been technically at war since 1945, the prospect of peace is tantalizing .

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