Long haul to Korean union

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The Independent Online

Two months after the first ever summit meeting between North and South Korea, relations across the world's last Cold War frontier have never been warmer or more peaceful. The two sides have reopened liaison offices on their mine-strewn border; in a fortnight's time the South will send 62 communist spies back to the North; and there are plans to reopen the dormant railway between the rival capitals of Seoul and Pyongyang.

Two months after the first ever summit meeting between North and South Korea, relations across the world's last Cold War frontier have never been warmer or more peaceful. The two sides have reopened liaison offices on their mine-strewn border; in a fortnight's time the South will send 62 communist spies back to the North; and there are plans to reopen the dormant railway between the rival capitals of Seoul and Pyongyang.

The climax came last week when 100 elderly Koreans from either side of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) flew over to meet relatives whom they hadn't seen for 50 years. For three days South Korean television gave blanket coverage to the visiting North Korean party as they attended banquets, visited an amusement park, and had tearful meetings with their South Korean relatives. "It takes less than an hour to get here - we weren't able to come for 50 years," said 68-year-old Lee Rai Song, who returned to Pyongyang on Friday. "We should gather forces and break down the DMZ."

But for all the high emotion and the remarkable progress of the last few weeks, political union of the peninsula is still almost unthinkably far off.

Ten weeks ago, on the eve of the Pyongyang meeting of the South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, and the "Dear Leader" of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, nobody imagined that the two sides could have come so far so fast. Since the Korean War ended with the 1953 armistice, the sides have technically remained at war; apart from a smaller family reunion in 1985, the only exchanges have been of spies, assassins and the defectors who have flowed from North to South. The agreement signed by the two Kims in June is explicit: beginning with small confidence-building measures, the two sides will build towards eventual union. "But what's missing is political change in North Korea," says Park Young Ho of the South's Korean Institute of National Unification, a government-backed research body.

The key question is why the two sides have started to talk to one another after so many decades of antipathy. In the South, credit goes to Kim Dae Jung, a former dissident who spent years in jail for his activities under Seoul's former military dictators. Throughout his career, he has urged rapprochement with the North: his "sunshine policy" of patient engagement is partly idealism, partly a recognition that the Cold War division is a historical anachronism the resolution of which is long overdue.

What, then, is in it for Kim Jong Il, who succeeded Kim Il Sung, his father and the founder of North Korea, in 1994? Until this year, he had been known to utter only a single sentence in public. At the Pyongyang summit, and subsequent meetings with South Korean visitors, he has shown himself to be articulate, sophisticated and almost charming. But the regime in Pyongyang remains unchanged. "It may be that Kim Jong Il has in mind fundamental changes for North Korea, or it may not," says a western diplomat in Seoul. "The safest assumption is that he doesn't. The widely held view is that he's doing this because it's the best way of keeping control."

For five years, after a series of floods, droughts and disastrous harvests, North Korea has relied on international aid to fend off a wide-spread famine. But the Dear Leader knows that such measures are short-term - what North Korea needs is foreign investment to reconstruct its bankrupt industries and rebuild its economy. In order to win that, it drastically needs to improve its warmongering, totalitarian image.

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