Koreas begin at last to end the 50-year winter

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The Independent Online

For much of the year, the South Korean capital, Seoul, lives up to its unenviable title as one of the last Cold War cities in the world.

For much of the year, the South Korean capital, Seoul, lives up to its unenviable title as one of the last Cold War cities in the world.

To the north, beyond the shiny central cluster of office buildings and embassies, sinister granite mountains jut above the horizon. An hour's drive beyond them lies the demilitarised zone (DMZ), where a million and a half soldiers face one another across a kilometre of tank traps, barbed wire and land mines. On the far side is North Korea, uniquely mysterious and menacing, with its bizarre leadership cult, its famine and its ballistic missiles.

Bill Clinton once referred to Korea as "the most dangerous place on the planet" and, in winter, as the icy wind whips down the broad grey avenues, it is easy to believe. But this week it is sunny and warm in Seoul and the grey mountains bear bright patches of green. Incoming aircraft and city hotels are packed with businessmen, diplomats and journalists, and the newspapers and television reflect a mood of cautious celebration. If all goes to plan - and it is a big if - today will be aremarkable day for Korea, the beginning of the end of a 50-year winter.

The summit meeting between North and South Korea, the first one since the country was divided in the 1950-52 Korean War, is due to open in the northern capital, Pyongyang. Accompanied by 130 diplomats, business men, and military officers, the South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, will fly in for two days of talks with Kim Jong Il, North Korea's hereditary "Dear Leader". The detailed subjects of their discussions have either not been decided or are being kept secret, but the importance of the visit lies not so much in what it produces, but in the fact that it is happening at all.

The fragile relationship between the North and South, still technically at war 48 years after the armistice, is so well established that it is easy to take it for granted. But this small peninsula of 70 million people contains one of the greatest concentrations of military power in the world. Apart from the Korean armies, there are 37,000 American troops here almost certainly supported, although they never officially own up to them, by nuclear weapons. Six years ago, during the crisis that followed the discovery of a suspected North Korean nuclear programme, the United States was within hours of going to war. Even last year, gunboats from the North and South fired on one another in the latest in a long series of border skirmishes.

The vagueness of the summit agenda has produced two broad theories.

One is that the leaders will meet simply to sign at the bottom of an accord secretly agreed by their officials. The more likely story is the one put out by South Korean diplomats - that nothing has been decided, and that everything depends on the personal interaction between the two Kims. Either way, no one is banking on a breakthrough.

"He will agree first on the easiest and most practical issues," said Kim Dae Jung's spokesman, Park Joon-Young These are likely to include assistance for the North's broken economy, food aid, and the reunion of families divided by the DMZ. Among the South Korea party is a soccer official, hoping to persuade Pyongyang to host some of the Korean games in the 2002 World Cup.

Officials in Seoul played down the significance yesterday of the one-day postponement announced by North Korea on Sunday. The hosts cited "technical reasons" - possibly difficulties in setting up the live satellite link that will beam the summit to the world. After weeks of negotiating, the North agreed to let 50 journalists accompany the President to Pyongyang, all of them Korean. The rest of the media must content themselves with sitting in Seoul and watching the event on television.