Tue, 23 May 2000

Platform for peace

Just 20 years ago, the generals who ran South Korea reacted to political protests in the southern city of Kwangju by gunning down more than 200 fellow citizens and sentencing the region's popular leader to death. On June 12 that once-doomed leader, Kim Dae-jung, now the country's elected President, will lead a 150- strong delegation into North Korea for talks on better relations across their over-armed frontier.

It is a remarkable transition with great significance for all Asia, especially for China and Taiwan. It suggests that once- hostile forces, given common sense and the passage of time, can move dramatically to resolve their differences, and give hope for peace where once there was mainly the threat of war.

Nothing good is guaranteed, of course, when President Kim finally does meet North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il. The two Koreas have been technically at war since 1950, and many past efforts to move beyond truce to specific peace agreements have failed. More than that, recent decades have seen repeated armed clashes, usually involving small Northern sea or land attacks against the South.

Mutual trust has been a rare commodity for good reason.

But history has unleashed new forces on both sides of the demilitarized zone. In the North, a collapsing Stalinist system has brought a lengthy famine just as foreign friends in Russia and China have lost interest in financing continued economic failure. In the South, the era of military dictators has passed, producing civilian leaders who want to end costly enmity rather than prolong it.

Thus there may well be serious results when the two leaders hold the first of what is scheduled to be a series of summits. With relative ease, they already have agreed on procedural issues delegation sizes, travel routes, press coverage and so on. Any one of these would have seemed impossible just a few months ago.

Resolving the key issues, such as family reunification or political co-operation, will be infinitely more difficult. But the mood on both sides has changed radically, and creating peaceful relations suddenly seems a serious possibility. Both Beijing and Taipei should pay close attention.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong