The two Koreas after Pyongyang visit

Accommodation: No longer unimaginable, remains to be achieved for a safer world.

June 16, 2000

THE SUMMIT of the two Koreas exceeded expectations in atmospherics if not specifics. Peace is not at hand but is suddenly imaginable. No problem has been solved but all may become soluble.

Live television from the forbidden North during the visit of President Kim Dae Jung to Pyongyang mesmerized South Koreans. Obsolete film cameras captured the same scenes for careful editing before viewing in North Korea.

The South's and West's perception of Chairman Kim Jong Il changed in three days from unpredictable mad recluse to a relatively normal human being who is a Communist dictator.

The first problems the joint communique promised to tackle are those within the power of the two Korean regimes to resolve. These are humanitarian, such as reunions of separated families and economic cooperation.

U.S. military policy, the heritage of American lives sacrificed a half-century ago to save the South from conquest, was not immediately affected. The 37,000 U.S. troops are not coming home soon. The administration's commitment to creating a limited national missile defense is undisturbed.

But Washington is deeply implicated in any accommodation that can be achieved. Patient diplomacy on nuclear dangers by former Defense Secretary William Perry helped prepare the ground for this meeting. Missilery may be the next subject.

The administration is reportedly preparing to lift most of the sanctions on North Korea in place for 50 years to permit trade and communications having no military application. Critics of the missile defense program will be emboldened if the North is no longer seen as an irrational regime undeterred by current U.S. capabilities.

Next, the two Koreas should expedite confidence-building measures of the kind they identified. The United States, meanwhile, can begin exploring possibilities in Pyongyang, dangling diplomatic recognition as a carrot.

This is a time for testing Kim Jong Il's intentions, not taking goodness for granted. No lowering of our guard can precede the building of confidence. After the half-century of North Korea's extreme hostility to the outer world, much remains to be proven.

At least the process has begun.

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