October 2, 2007

The Pyongyang Summit

The leaders of the two Korean states shook hands to the cheers of thousands in Pyongyang today. The historic summit, only the second in a half-century of hostility, hopes to bridge the gulf between Koreans separated by a DMZ, and to staunch the bleeding from the catastrophic economic collapse in the North. Whether it leads to any real progress may have more to do with disarmament talks taking place elsewhere:

As hundreds of thousands of North Koreans cheered and waved pink paper flowers, leaders of the two Koreas shook hands at the start of a summit that is expected to inject large amounts of money from the booming capitalist South into the struggling Stalinist North.

The reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jung Il, dressed in the gray military-style jumpsuit he wears to meet the world's television cameras, looked dour as he walked with the smiling South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun.

They met on a red carpet in front of a performing arts hall in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, where substantive talks in the three-day summit are expected to start on Wednesday.

The atmospherics of this summit, only the second such meeting in the more than half a century since the North and South fought an all-out war, seemed rather cooler than in the first summit in 2000.

Kim Jong-Il seemed happier at the previous summit, Blaine Harden reports, but there may be a reason for that beyond diplomatic tensions. The South Koreans paid Kim $186 million for that 2000 summit meeting, which caused a political scandal when it came to light in Seoul. This time, the government had to pledge that it would not pay for the summit, which undoubtedly explains Dear Leader's sour expression, at least in part.

Seoul expects to make some economic deals on this trip that will benefit both countries. They want to create a free-trade zone with Pyongyang, a move that would only benefit the DPRK financially. However, Kim has to worry about the liberating effects of free trade, which relies on at least some capitalist structure. The South will want to compete on an equal basis, which will mean less slave labor. The increased contacts between the two nations will also create a much larger sense of injustice among Kim's restive population -- and it could lead to a huge exodus if the DMZ gets dismantled.

Kim wants a reunification, but on his terms. Roh, weak at home and his party almost certain to lose big in the next elections, wants normalized relations. Both men seek Holy Grails that are not only completely unrealistic but mutually incompatible. The best either can hope to do is exchange some money and have an impact on public opinion in their opponents' back yards. The real action is taking place in the six-party disarmament talks, where Kim hopes to get the US off of his back for good. Until the nuclear issue gets resolved, this amounts to a side show, and both leaders know it.


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