Korea tempers joy with realities

After hero's return, Kim awaits practical steps to reunification

Next move is Pyongyang's

June 16, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - South Korean President Kim Dae Jung returned home to a hero's welcome yesterday after his historic summit in Pyongyang, taking a victory lap through the capital and shaking hands with well-wishers as crowds numbering in the tens of thousands lined the boulevards waving national flags.

Soon after landing, Kim tried to temper the euphoria in a speech which briefly outlined some the challenges that lie ahead if North and South Korea - two starkly different countries - are to reconcile and build a lasting peace after a half-century of living in a state of war.

Kim urged his counterpart, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to implement the agreement they signed late Wednesday which calls for the reunion of families separated since the Korean War (1950-1953) as well as the development of a national economy.

He also pressed the North Korean leader to honor his commitment to visit Seoul, a pledge which would be among the first tests of Kim Jong Il's sincerity, according to analysts.

"What we need is practical action," said South Korea's Kim, noting that earlier accords signed between the two countries had languished. "If we repeat saying such words as `independence,' `unification' and `peace' without any practical moves, the peoples of the world would not trust us anymore."

Kim's speech concluded an extraordinary few days in which the Cold War rivals penned an accord which promised to ease military tensions on the peninsula and eventually reunify 70 million Koreans.

In a summit long on symbolism and short on substance, the final images in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, yesterday captured the spirit of reconciliation.

During a luncheon, the two leaders held hands and sang "Our Wish is Unification," a popular tune in both countries. Later, Kim Jong Il walked Kim Dae Jung across the tarmac at Sunan airport to say goodbye. The gesture was gracious by any standard. It was all the more striking, because it came from a reclusive dictator.

At the foot of the ramp, a beaming Kim Jong Il hugged the president of his erstwhile archenemy and patted him on the back. The two leaders touched cheeks several times.

"National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il's welcome and hospitality was beyond my expectations," Kim said, referring to the North Korean leader by his official title. "Pyongyang was just like home."

The scene - unimaginable a few days ago - drew cheers from South Korean reporters watching on a panel of televisions at the media center 108 miles away in Seoul. It also went a long way toward winning over a skeptical South Korean public which has generally regarded Kim Jong Il as a tyrant.

People who several months ago would have never trusted Kim Jong Il seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt yesterday based on his performance at the summit and his courteous treatment of President Kim. "Kim Jong Il is a much more able person than we thought," said Lee Han Hang, 35, who manages a leather products company. "He's very relaxed and confident."

"I think he is definitely an autocrat, but we also saw a human side to him," said Jung Young Mi, a 28-year-old nutritionist. "I want to believe he's a good person."

While the agreement signed Wednesday raised the hopes of 46 million South Koreans, it contained few details and raised many questions.

As part of the accord, North Korea agreed to permit the reunion of families separated when millions of northerners fled south before and during the Korean War. Those who escaped lost touch with their relatives after North Korea's Stalinist regime sealed itself off from most of the rest of the world.

Some observers wonder whether Kim Jong Il can allow a steady and large number of reunions, as the South wants. Much of his strategy for controlling his desperately poor country relies on keeping its citizens ignorant of the spectacular economic progress in capitalist South Korea.

North Korean government-run media routinely tell its people that South Korea is an impoverished puppet of the United States. Defectors from North Korea are often amazed to find the enemy capital a thriving city filled with late-model cars and shopping malls.

If South Koreans are able to share that information with their relatives in the North, Pyongyang could have a huge political problem on its hands.

"If North Korea comes out and institutionalizes regular reunions at Pyongyang or Panmunjom [a border village inside the demilitarized zone], then that will show a person like me that he has changed," said Kim Byung Kook, a professor of international political economy at Korea University.

While most South Koreans were impressed with what they saw of Kim Jong Il this week, some have questioned whether his charm offensive was merely a piece of political theater to suit the needs of a nation mired in famine.

Even the most brutal dictators can be disarming when necessary. Mao Tse-tung, who was blamed for the death of up to 30 million Chinese through political upheaval and ill-advised economic policies, entranced Henry Kissinger during their meetings in the early 1970s. Before the outbreak of the Cold War, Hollywood propaganda films portrayed Josef Stalin - the brutal dictator of the Soviet Union - as a kindly uncle.

"I'm not convinced we're seeing a new Kim Jong Il," said Kim Byung Kook, the Korea University professor. For all the politeness and humor the North Korean leader displayed this week, Kim Jong Il still runs a regime which imprisons, tortures and sometimes executes its citizens who try to flee abroad to find food.

"You have to remember that about 2 million people died in the famine in the past few years," Kim Byung Kook said. "And the reason they died is because the regime thought its survival was more important than the survival of its people."

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