South Korean president travels to North for historic peace summit

Talks aim at ending 50-year standoff along heavily fortified border

June 13, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - After a day's delay, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung flew into enemy territory this morning for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in hopes of bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula after more than a half century of hatred.

About 180 South Korean officials were to join Kim on the 108-mile flight from Seoul to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

The two leaders were scheduled to hold at least two meetings and attend a pair of banquets. Kim is scheduled to return Thursday, driving across the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjom, where the north and south signed an armistice in 1953, halting the Korean War.

The summit is the first between the leaders of the divided peninsula since it split at the end of World War II.

Analysts and South Korean officials say the meetings are unlikely to lead to any breakthroughs, but see the summit as a hopeful first step towards reconciling the Cold War rivals.

The summit had been scheduled to open yesterday, but North Korea postponed it until today, citing unspecified "technical reasons."

For Kim Dae Jung, who initiated the peace process with Pyongyang, the summit is a gamble. If it fails, his critics will savage him for being too soft on the Stalinist regime to the north.

If the summit succeeds and leads to a lasting peace, it will be seen as a turning point in modern Korean history and a crowning achievement in Kim's extraordinary political career.

Sometimes called Korea's Nelson Mandela, Kim is lucky to be alive, let alone president of this country of 46 million people. As an opposition leader challenging a military dictatorship, Kim survived kidnapping, a death sentence for treason and an attempt by Korean security agents to drown him before he won the presidency in 1997.

In 1971, Kim served as a young congressman and almost beat authoritarian President Park Chung Hee. Impartial observers say if the election had been fair, Kim would have won.

Two years later, South Korean security agents kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel, placed him on a large ship and attached weights to his bound hands and feet. Kim, a devout Catholic, was spared after a plane flew past and dropped a flare. He thinks it was a message from the CIA not to dump him in the water.

In total, Kim spent 26 months in exile in the United States, six years in prison and seven years under house arrest before assuming the presidency in 1998.

Where Seoul had sought to topple the North Korean regime in the past, Kim pursued a "Sunshine Policy" which called for reconciliation andreunification. The strategy appeared to pay off when North Korea surprised the world in April and agreed to a summit.

An earlier summit had been scheduled in 1994, but was cancelled after the death of Kim Jong Il's father, North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung.

Among the most important issues for discussion in Pyongyang this week are the reunion of families separated during the war and aid to North Korea, where as many as two million people have died from famine in the past few years.

South Korea wants the North to permit reunions for relatives who were separated before and during the Korean War(1950-1953) when millions of northerners fled to the south.

"Numerous members of separated families have grown old and are passing away," said Kim, now 74, in his 1998 inaugural address. "We must let those ones separated from their families in the South and the North meet and communicate with each other as soon as possible."

With the exception of a small reunion in 1985, the North has refused to allow mail or face-to-face contact between family members on either side of the DMZ, the world's most fortified border.

Pyongyang fears that any family reunions will undermine its authority. North Korea's regime, which wields near total control over information within its borders, has convinced its citizens that South Korea is an impoverished, U.S. puppet state.

In fact, South Korea is among Asia's most modern nations.

Despite the Asian economic crisis, the South Korean economy appears to have bounced back quickly. While the streets of Pyongyang are empty after dark because there is no fuel to power cars, downtown Seoul looks like one large shopping mall where everyone seems to drive with a cell phone to their ears.

Recovering from a famine brought on by mismanagement and drought, North Korea probably has a wish list for investment and aid, including fuel, food and fertilizer.

Pyongyang also wants the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the south to go home -- a request South Korea refuses to consider for now.

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