But while Seoul is publicly optimistic about the first summit between the presidents, in private some officials are wondering whether it is not yet another move by North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung, to divert attention from his suspected nuclear weapons programme, rather than the first step in a process to reunify Korea.
Meanwhile the Clinton administration has been slow to embrace former President Jimmy Carter's assertion that the crisis over North Korea has been 'defused'. Mr Carter claimed Kim Il Sung promised him during 10 hours of talks that North Korea would freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for a suspension of planned United Nations sanctions, high-level talks with the US about diplomatic recognition, and a package of economic aid.
'There are some hopeful signs,' President Clinton said yesterday, 'but the critical question is: are they willing to freeze this nuclear programme? If it's going to be frozen, then clearly that is grounds for talking, but we have to know what the facts are.' The White House said it would press for sanctions until Pyongyang verifies it will freeze the programme.
President Kim Young Sam of South Korea said the summit 'may change our post-liberation history' - Korea was liberated from Japanese colonialism at the end of the Second World War, but simultaneously partitioned into Soviet and US sectors along a line that continues to divide the peninsula today. This line is a two mile- wide strip of open ground with minefields, guardposts and razor wire separating two of the world's largest and most heavily armed armies, and ironically called the De- Militarised Zone (DMZ).
Most South Koreans expect the country to be reunified some time in the future, but few are under any illusions about the gulf that separates the two countries today.
While the aggressively capitalist, democratic government of South Korea has been concentrating on how to make its country's industries more competitive and hi-tech in the world's markets, Communist North Korea is desperately seeking a way of staving off the internal collapse that has wiped away so many of its former allies in the Communist bloc.
Consider, for example, what might pass over the desks of the two heads of state on a working day. The South Korean President might expect to find proposals to reform the banking system, a prospectus for the new bullet train which is to be built to link Seoul with the southern port city of Pusan, a look-ahead calendar of the foreign leaders who are due to visit Seoul to discuss investment and trade-flows, a working group's suggestions on easing the traffic problems of increasingly affluent Seoul, proposals on raising subsidies to farmers to compensate for the opening of the rice market under Gatt (the world trade agreement), and, of course, the daily assessment by his national security advisers on North Korean military manoeuvres and war readiness.
In Pyongyang, meanwhile, Kim Il Sung will receive his daily briefing on what the US hegemonists and their South Korean puppet forces are getting up to on their side of the DMZ, a carefully watered down report on agricultural production which shows some problems in food supplies while avoiding mention of actual shortages, a draft plan for attracting foreign investors, a summary of the power shortages affecting different parts of the country and the morning's sheaf of congratulatory telegrams from the leaders of Communist parties in small African states and Kim Il Sung 'study groups' in such places as Cuba, Bulgaria and Peru.
If the two men do meet, they have so little in common it is hard to imagine what they might talk about. Kim Young Sam, 66, spent 30 years as a political dissident before finally becoming South Korea's first democratically elected president since 1961. He has endured house arrest, a prolonged political ban and even a hunger strike in his political struggle. The 82-year-old Kim Il Sung, by contrast, is a creature of the former Soviet Union's world power play, installed as head of Communist North Korea by Stalin in 1948, and unchallenged ever since.
While Kim Young Sam can pride himself on the past year and a half of his presidency for cleaning up corruption and galvanising the country's big businesses, Kim Il Sung has run his command economy into the ground, to the point where there is not enough food for people to eat three meals a day. If the two Kims do meet, the President of the South will be speaking on behalf of a prosperous society with its free lifestyle for 45 million people.
But the Great Leader of the North will be speaking only on behalf of himself, his extravagant personality cult and his outdated dreams of a socialist paradise that have gone badly wrong, and may depend solely on a secret nuclear programme for their survival. Hardly a promising start for a discussion between the two leaders.Reuse content