2000 summit: Did it do any good?Five years after the leaders of the divided Koreas met face-to-face for the first time, the momentous embrace between then-President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, has brought hundreds of millions of dollars in South Korean aid to the impoverished, isolated and nuclear North, hundreds of reunions for families separated by the Korean War 50 years ago, one Nobel Peace Prize and one high-profile suicide.
Other outcomes of the meeting present a mixed picture of its success or failure. Though little dialogue between the countries has occurred over the last 10 months, only one serious military provocation took place in the past five years. At the meeting on June 15, 2000, Kim Jong-il promised to reciprocate and visit Seoul, but that hasn’t happened. Nor, as was agreed years earlier, is the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear arms.
As the two Koreas celebrate the anniversary of the summit, there remain deeply divergent opinions of the value of the brief, broad statement signed by the two leaders five years ago today. Any assessment of the summit depends on individual political persuasion and a personal store of hope for inter-Korean relations.
In June of 2000, euphoria over the chances for peace marked the event.
At the banquet table in Pyongyang, soon-to-be Nobel winner Kim Dae-jung proclaimed it “the day we have been waiting for.” His counterpart threw back champagne, cracked jokes and charmed everyone with his hospitality; then everyone got up and sang “Our Wish is Unification.”
Keeping that wish alive, the divided countries soon sponsored an emotional reunion of families separated by the 38th parallel. While making plans to visit Seoul, Kim Jong-il welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang and hinted at a possible meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton. The international community started to open both its mind and purse strings to a country that just a few years earlier had been in the grip of one of the worst famines in history.
Then the momentum reversed course when George W. Bush became U.S. president in 2001.
The spirit of ’00 soured further in 2003, when it was revealed that Hyundai, the private conglomerate behind a tourism venture at the enclave of Mount Kumkang in North Korea, had just before the summit made a secret $500-million deal with the North that many suspect was backed by the South Korean government.
When Park Jie-won, Kim Dae-jung’s chief of staff, admitted that the chairman of Hyundai Asan had been present at the meeting to “arrange” the summit with North Korean officials, taxpayers wondered if they had paid to watch the Northern dictator put on a good show. Prosecutors summoned the Hyundai chairman, Chung Mong-hun ― a son of the founder of Hyundai Group ― to explain why the money transfer had been hushed if it really was for tourism monopoly rights as he claimed. Days after being forced to testify in court, Mr. Chung jumped to his death from his office window.
The implications of a bribe called into question the summit’s very meaning. “It really discredits the genuineness of both sides,” says Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University’s Graduate School for International Studies. If the allegations are true, he adds, “it would have been the wrong way to bring about the summit.”
Others take a more lenient view. “The secret payments have tarnished the achievement,” says Don Oberdorfer, former Washington Post correspondent and author of “The Two Koreas.” “But I suspect they will be much less significant in the light of history than they seem today.”
Bruce Cumings, a noted North Korea expert, said: “In any case there are many, many examples of diplomatic breakthroughs having been accomplished with transfers or promises of large amounts of money.”
Despite public disillusionment following the scandal, Mr. Cumings expresses what is still perhaps the prevailing sentiment in South Korea of the summit when he says, “The most important success was simply that it happened.”
It takes a memory of just how bad North-South relations were before 2000 to see why many feel the anniversary still calls for celebrating, in spite of everything that has or hasn’t happened since.
General Hwang Won-Tak, Kim Dae-jung’s chief security adviser and a member of the delegation to Pyongyang in 2000, cites the multiple military provocations that used to come from the North every year for half a century. “The Korean people had never been relieved of the fear of possible war,” he says.
Now, in five years, there have been no provocations save one, a naval skirmish in 2002.
Selig Harrison of Washington’s Center for International Policy says he believes it would only be legitimate to question the summit’s success if the present military calm is broken. Until then, he says, “the basis for judgment should be made in the context of political realism.” He adds this somewhat pardons the Hyundai deal.
General Hwang also prefers realism over lofty talk. “It is a fact that the North Korean regime is an abnormal one; in that regard, nobody would like to recognize it,” he said. “That is one thing. Another thing is how to deal with it.”
Mr. Oberdorfer points out, “What the summit did not do was affect the ideological and political character of the Pyongyang regime.”
Mr. Harrison, in fact, even regards the effort as “a very hard-headed business decision” by the South to facilitate “a slow process of coming together so that the costs of German-style reunification could be avoided.”
Balbina Hwang, a policy analyst at Washington’s Heritage Foundation, also believes the South was strategizing for economic reunification at the summit. But rather than encourage a gradual opening of the North, she suspects that “actually the goal was to create economic interdependence with North Korea and gain influence and control over its economy, specifically in competition with China.”
While being pragmatic instead of idealistic may make sense, it’s still unclear what exactly the “changed climate” has brought the South. “I think South Korea got absolutely nothing from North Korea over the last five years,” Ms. Hwang says. Regardless of whether an under-the-table payoff for June 15 actually happened, she says, “look at what South Korea has paid North Korea since then. All those are bribes. It’s all benefited Kim Jong-il.”
Grand National Party lawmaker Park Jin sounds the same note. “Compared with the initial expectations of the public, no substantial result has come out,” he says. “Instead the overall security situation has become worse,” suggesting the North’s nuclear arms development program destabilizes the region.
Though President Roh Moo-hyun has continued his predecessor’s policy of engagement, inter-Korean relations in the past year have sunk to their lowest point since 2000. After cutting off communication with the South following a mass defection, North Korea also shelved the long-stalled six-party talks and in February officially declared it had nuclear weapons.
"That's a separate issue” unrelated to the summit, insists Mr. Harrison, “because the nuclear program addresses the perceived attack from the U.S.” Unlike before, as he sees it, this time Pyongyang’s threat of aggression is not directed toward South Korea.
Many experts, like Joel Wit of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agree that only so much can be attributed back to the summit. Though its message had been that Koreans were finally taking charge of their own affairs, that critical third party, the United States, must still be accounted for. “North-South rapprochement wasn't a problem for the last [U.S.] administration. It is for this one,” Mr. Wit explains.
In 2000, relations among South Korea, North Korea and the United States had converged along the same track. The United States later took another direction, but the most visible change after the summit happened in South Korea, as the younger postwar generations grew up with a reduced sense of threat together with rising sentiments of Korean fraternity and American alienation ― and at the same time gained true political power.
It is this demographic that largely ushered Mr. Roh into office in 2002 and pressures it today to maintain its North-friendly policy.
Of the three nations, North Korea has remained the most consistent in its outlook on the world since 2000. “Not to say the sunshine policy had no effect, but the ‘sunshine’ was actually directed at South Korea,” says Ms. Hwang, “in the huge changes in its views toward North Korea ― not the other way around.”
The North-as-wayward-brother mentality that’s been so prevalent in the South in recent years had for decades been inconceivable. It’s this awakening that now undergirds desires to avoid violence at all costs and to separate civilian exchanges ― including inter-Korean economic projects like the Kaesong industrial complex ― from political ones. At Kaesong in North Korea, workers turn out products for South Korean-owned factories, earning a fraction of what they would in the South.
But as for reaching out to the North Korean masses, South Korea’s rhetoric and action show some evidence of selectivity. Defectors report great difficulties being accepted by society in the South. The government has been squeamish, and the people indifferent, about confronting the North’s human rights abuses. Part of this is because, as the South learned over the past year and even the past week, Kim Jong-il knows that to a certain degree the inter-Korean relationship is at his disposal. Being a closed society, “one of the few things North Koreans have to use to their advantage is access,” says Mr. Oberdorfer. “And they use it.”
Not surprisingly, some South Koreans are voicing exasperation as Seoul appears to be yanked this way and that by a string held by Kim Jong-il. “I think it’s time for the government to reconsider adjusting the pace and context [of its policies] to promote reciprocity,” says Kim Tae-hyo of Sungkyunkwan University, advising that Seoul link security-sensitive issues with economic assistance. Unlike Mr. Harrison, Mr. Kim believes that the fate of the engagement policy is not at all separate from the nuclear issue ― rather, that it hinges on it.
Mr. Lee of Yonsei expresses similar frustration: “If we had been more principled in dealing with the [North Korean] regime, that would have given us more leverage by now.”
At a U.S.-South Korea friendship breakfast last year, South Korea’s foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, was asked what the engagement policy had gained for his country. Mr. Ban smoothly side-stepped the question, saying only that “conciliation takes a long time.”
So here at the five-year mark, when the legacy of the summit has yet to gel, Hwang Won-tak ― who helped bring it about in 2000 ― counsels patience. It was a momentous handshake, but moments must be evaluated in the line of history.
Mr. Oberdorfer, too, is careful to call it “the most potentially important event” on the peninsula since 1953. From that crowded plank between hope and uncertainty, he hesitates - “But I do think that it’ll turn out to be positive in the end” ― and hesitates again. “But we don’t know.”
by Kim Sun-jung
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