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Korean summit - Familiar claims of a breakthrough – It’ll cost you

Bringing his own food, and accompanied by 300 business, political and cultural figures—but excluding the international press—President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea drove to Pyongyang on October 2nd to call upon North Korea’s Kim Jong Il.

At the heavily-armed border, which Bill Clinton once described as “the world’s scariest place”, Roh got out of his limousine to cross on foot—a step, he wanted everyone to know, that symbolized a desire for peace and reconciliation between the two estranged sides of a bloody civil war that remains unresolved more than 50 years after it ground to a halt.

It was only the second-ever meeting between leaders of the two countries, and Roh’s gambit was aimed at the history books. He wanted to salvage an ineffectual presidency, which ends in December, by asking Kim to reduce tensions on the peninsula in return for economy-transforming aid and investment. Roh’s approach has led to divisions even among his own advisers. Some, such as the unification minister, Lee Jae-joung—described by one Western diplomat as an “unguided missile”—are gung-ho for reconciliation and are prepared to overlook a lot of Kim’s unpleasantness. Others despise the repressive regime of Kim, and know that behind him lies a trail of broken promises. To offer too much now might also undermine the multilateral “six-party” process taking place in parallel, in which North Korea is being offered measured aid in return for clear steps towards dismantling its nuclear capabilities.

Though this summit drew the opaque Kim out from the shadows somewhat, he remains hard to read. During the first summit, in 2000, when he met Roh’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, Kim was all bear-hugs and smiles. That meeting generated mass euphoria in North and South, but little of substance came of it—not even Kim’s promised return visit to Seoul. It later turned out that $500 million had been paid to Kim just for the audience.

This week the befuddled looks of farmers as Roh’s presidential cavalcade swept up the highway to Pyongyang suggested that Kim had not let all his compatriots in on the historic moment, one for which Roh has begged for years. Though a handpicked crowd in the capital gave a joyous reception, waving artificial bunches of Kimjongilia, a strain of begonia that is a national flower, Kim himself was stiff and tight-lipped. To many of his countrymen, he will have looked on television like an emperor receiving tribute. But many outsiders once again wondered about the health of the pallid, pot-bellied 65-year-old. Kim is known to have had heart problems, and some intelligence analysts recently have claimed to see the early signs of senile dementia—though this is mere conjecture.

From what can be gleaned of their substance, talks between the two leaders on October 3rd only emphasized the distance still to travel. Kim may be willing to squeeze the outside world for aid—but on his terms. So Roh’s offer of what amounted to a Marshall Plan to transform North Korea’s economy in pursuit of Chinese-style liberalization met with blank dismissal. Kim does not even like a showcase industrial park at Kaesong, where South Korean manufacturers employ cheap North Korean labor, to be described as a model of successful “reform”. Once again, Kim showed how he puts his own survival over that of the North Koreans he brutalizes.

Yet a joint agreement was announced on October 4th, something Roh will be able to take home with relief. Gone were his hopes for great involvement in the North, but there was agreement to allow freight trains into Kaesong. There was a recommitment to help families divided by the civil war to meet (though a word from Kim is all it would take to solve that sad problem). Talks will be sought with America and China to put a formal end to the civil war (though peace on the peninsula, these countries are likely to argue, can only come after its denuclearization). Steps were promised (as, fruitlessly, they were at the 2000 summit) to reduce military tensions: defense ministers would meet, while a disputed western maritime area would see its fisheries jointly mined.
Promising as all this sounds, much of it merely repeats earlier promises. In the long run, Kim has never really seen his interests as best served by closer relations with the South. They might lead, eventually, to reunification and hence to his dynasty’s extinction. China, Japan, Russia and America, the other parties in the six-party talks, may loathe his regime, but they are in effect helping to prop it up.

As Roh struggled to secure his piece of paper in Pyongyang, the Chinese government this week declared a breakthrough in those talks as well. Almost a year after North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb, the Chinese said the country had agreed to disable its main nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon by the year’s end (this, the main source of the North’s bomb-grade plutonium, has been shut since July). North Korea has also promised to give a full account of all its nuclear activities by then. If it sticks to this pledge—and American-led inspection teams are to oversee the disablement, starting, said negotiators, as early as this month—then the North will get about $100 million in aid. Meanwhile, America says it will drop the North from its list of states that sponsor terrorism, a central North Korean demand.

In Washington, DC, the administration hailed the pact, which had George Bush’s personal nod, as a real step on the path to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Others remain skeptical until the fine print is known. And no one doubts that the next stage after declaration and disablement—getting North Korea to give up its handful of nuclear weapons along with its stock of fissile material—will prove by far the hardest. For now, Kim is being given the benefit of the doubt. Not for the first time, he may turn a profit from that. Perhaps the brutalized country he has done so much to impoverish might even benefit too. (