Mon, 23 Oct 2000

Momentum for peace

Sifting through the various rhetorical statements on the importance of cementing Asian-European ties in the new millennium, one can find something a far more concrete result from the summit of the Asian and European leaders in Seoul which ended on Saturday. Host South Korea managed to turn the biennial summit, in the past widely dismissed as nothing more than a dull talking shop, into a major diplomatic event to win wringing endorsements for its drive to strike peace with its northern neighbor.

President Kim Dae-Jung, winner of this year's Nobel Peace prize, got the 25 other leaders present to sign the Seoul Declaration on Peace on the Korean Peninsula. Not that leaders to the Third Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Seoul needed convincing to support South Korea's desire to forge peace with the North.

South and North Korea are the only two countries in the world still mired in the cold war, which for the rest of the world had ended more than a decade ago. The two countries technically are still at war with each other. But tensions have been much reduced since the historical summit between President Kim Dae-Jung and North Korean Chairman Kim Il-Song in Pyongyang in June.

The southern Kim has since been campaigning to win international support for his step-by-step approach to build peace in the Korean peninsula. The catchphrase among Seoul's political elite is no longer "reunification" -- which many Koreans regard as a distant but not impossible dream -- but reconciliation or peaceful inter-Korean relations. That means building a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence between the two Koreas.

Easier said than done for two countries which have been technically at war for the past 50 years. Crucial to Seoul's game plan therefore is to encourage North Korea to end half a century of self-imposed isolation and to start opening up to the rest of the world. This is where international support, including from ASEM leaders who gathered in Seoul last week, comes in.

South Korea is counting on the major western powers to establish diplomatic ties with Pyongyang to further encourage the opening up of the North. The United States, Seoul's main ally, has already moved in this direction. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will go to Pyongyang this week to prepare for President Bill Clinton's visit later in the year. Japan has also followed suit in exploring diplomatic ties with North Korea.

Following the ASEM summit this weekend, many major European powers have jumped on the bandwagon. Most Asian countries, including Indonesia, already have ties with both Koreas, but the momentum is ripe to expand their relations with Pyongyang.

Seoul's gradualist approach to peace with the North is commendable and deserves no less than full international support. Given the horror stories about millions of people in the North dying of starvation, South Korea could have simply sat and watched the authoritarian North Korean regime crumble, the same way communist regimes in East Germany and Soviet Union went a decade ago. Instead, South Korea is lobbying developed countries to open up diplomatic ties with its archenemy and channel economic aid, even if that meant sustaining the regime in the North.

When all is said and done, we can all look back at the just concluded ASEM summit in Seoul as a major contribution in sustaining the momentum to build reconciliation in the Korean peninsula, and therefore to restore peace in the region and the world. Even the most skeptical of the ASEM process must now agree that the talking shop has its uses at times.