Tue, 27 Jun 2000

The Korean summit, more questions than answers

HONG KONG (JP): Perhaps it is in the very nature of joint declarations that their merits tend to be exaggerated. The British did it with their joint declaration with China regarding Hong Kong, the Indians did it with their declaration with Pakistan at Lahore.

Now the South Koreans, plus many foreigners who should know better, are following suit. The first ever document signed by the North and South Korea leaders is already being widely oversold as a "landmark pact" and an "historic agreement" setting the two Koreas on the "road to reunification".

Given the extremely frigid Cold War tensions in Korea for most of the last 47 years since the hot war ended, given the fact that their nation has been artificially divided since 1945 as a standing rebuke to Koreans' deep emotional feelings that they are One People, it was completely understandable that there was a tremendous sense of relief -- at least in South Korea, where people are relatively free to express themselves -- after the first meeting of their leaders.

But did that justify arousing euphoria?

The reality remains that the joint declaration signed by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean Workers Party Chairman Kim Jong-il raises more questions than answers, and is, in one crucial sense, a huge disappointment.

Analysis of the Pyongyang Declaration, as President Kim has called it, is made the more difficult by the fact that at least three translations into English have so far emerged -- and even the translation provided by the Korean Overseas Information Service (KOIS) is termed "unofficial".

First and foremost, the summit document was only a joint declaration, a relatively low form of diplomatic format, usually used by nations when they prefer to affirm general principles without tying themselves down to specifics.

What has been produced is not even a joint communique, still less a joint agreement -- though that has not stopped simplistic sensation-seeking media from hailing it as such. It has been encouraged to do so by the euphoria-seeking South Korean government.

Second, the two Koreas have sought to finesse the very real differences that divide the communist North from the democratic South by asserting an undefined but racially assertive Korean nationalism vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

This intent comes across clearly in the first of five points in the Pyongyang Declaration -- "The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country"

As a political tactic this is understandable. As a strategic objective it is questionable -- especially for South Korea. Once the South joins with the North in emotionally asserting nationalism and independence, the North Koreans have a perfectly valid excuse for asking once again -- why retain American troops on your side of the demilitarized zone? Why sustain your close relations with the United States and Japan? Since the summit the North has in fact renewed this pressure.

Third, the imprecise language which characterizes joint declarations is again illustrated when the two sides declare that "there is a common element in the South's concept of a confederation and the North's formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agree to promote reunification in that direction".

What possible direction can that be? This vague promise clearly raises more questions since the North's concept of federation, as it has been frequently articulated in the past, leaves the Kim communist dynasty in charge of the whole of Korea, a position with which, presumably, a democratic South is never likely to agree.

But, according to one South Korean claim, Kim Dae-jung pointed out to the North that confederation, as well as being the practical solution, would allow both Koreas to retain their separate membership in international bodies.

Fourth, the crucial issue for South Koreans, on which many will judge the summit, concerns the reunion of separated families. This is because, according to one calculation, 1.23 million South Koreans directly, and over 7.6 million indirectly, have relatives in the North with whom they have lost touch. Given the deep emotions aroused by this issue, some specific pledge was required.

Yet all the two leaders could agree to was to "promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the Aug. 15 National Liberation Day".

This hardly suggests a sustained resolution of a vexing problem; it suggests mere tokenism. Families need to be reunited every day of the year, not just one day. All that can happen on Aug. 15 is that a token couple of hundred of relatives from both sides will have reunions in the truce village of Panmunjom.

Given its anxiety to keep out free-thinking Southerners, such a limited reunion is probably all that North Korea could politically accept.

Such token exchanges were tried once before in 1985. They only aroused great Southern disappointment. There were a 100 or so reunions in Panmunjom, and, as one Korean said, the tokenism "was like giving steak to only 100 selected people while a million others could not even eat porridge".

One report said President Kim Dae-jung has already admitted that only a 100 South Koreans will be reunited with their Northern relatives this coming August.