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North, South Korea launch first summit

Leaders of the capitalist South and communist North meet to discuss security, economic aid and reunification.

By Times wire services

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


SEOUL, South Korea -- Nearly 50 years after the Korean War began, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung arrived today in North Korea for the first meeting between leaders of the two countries.

The presidential jet landed at Sunan airport near Pyongyang, the North's capital, after detouring over the Yellow Sea during the 70-minute trip from Seoul. There is no direct air travel between the peninsula's capitals, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers are deployed on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, separating North and South.

Kim's counterpart, Kim Jong Il, greeted him at the airport along with a military brass band, goose-stepping soldiers with fixed bayonets and women dressed in traditional, billowing Korean gowns.

The two leaders exchanged a few words while reviewing a military parade, strode down a red carpet and then left together in a black limousine bound for Pyongyang.

In a speech to his nation made from the tarmac moments before taking off for the three-day summit, Kim Dae Jung said the entire world was "welcoming and blessing this trip," during which he promised to listen clearly in order "to broaden understanding between North and South Korea."

"I wholeheartedly hope that my trip to Pyongyang will be on a path toward peace and reconciliation," Kim said. "I hope that it will be a turning point in efforts to remove threats to war and terminate the Cold War on the Korean peninsula so that all 70-million Korean people in the South and North can live in peace."

Then, before shaking the hands of dignitaries and diplomats gathered for the event and mounting the stairs to the presidential jet with his wife, he asked the nation to "please pray for me and wish for me a safe return."

The speech at once captured the sense of hope surrounding the trip, but also the deep uncertainties of dealing with North Korea, one of the world's most secretive and unpredictable nations. Thirty years ago, a northern commando raid penetrated Seoul in a failed bid to assassinate the then-President Park Chung Hee.

And just last year, North and South Korea fought a naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea that began over fishing rights and briefly threatened to explode into a full-blown war.

The Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, left millions of people dead, injured or missing, including Koreans, Americans and Chinese. There remain 37,000 American troops deployed along the border.

In his speech, Kim listed his priorities as "national security, economic assistance, supporting North Korea's opening to the world and unification."

Kim was long imprisoned in South Korea, and even sentenced to death, for his advocacy of democracy. He reached out to the North in his inaugural speech in February 1998, when he made a ringing call for an end to the Cold War on the peninsula.

Of late North Korea has also been changing, reaching out to make or restore diplomatic relations with countries in the region and elsewhere.

The South Korean government has been playing down expectations for the summit. The South Korean president and his aides have said that the symbolism of a handshake with Kim Jong Il is what matters most and that substantive agreements must wait.

Nevertheless, Kim Dae Jung carries the hopes of the estimated 1.2-million refugees who fled to the South during the Korean War. Most have had no word of the fate of relatives left in the North since the truce ending the war was signed in 1953.

The South hopes at least to get a deal to allow visits among the aging separated families, and a reduction in tensions on the heavily armed peninsula. Kim Dae Jung also might raise the issue of North Korea's missile program, and Kim Jong Il could reiterate the North's long-standing demand that the United States withdraw its 37,000 troops from the South -- an issue the South says is non-negotiable.

Economic aid and cooperation is expected to top the agenda for hungry North Korea. As a goodwill gesture, the South agreed to send 200,000 tons of fertilizer, half of which has been delivered. Starved for electricity, the North reportedly is seeking coal to fire its aging generating plants.

But aid issues between the old enemies are fraught with politics. South Korea recently offered to send surplus electricity to the North, but the North Koreans reportedly refused, fearing dependence on a neighbor that could pull the plug if relations sour.

Last week, South Korea's unification minister suggested that economic aid could be linked to permission for family reunions. But a presidential spokesman Sunday denied that aid would be conditioned on such progress.

Details of Kim's itinerary leaked to the South Korean media despite a North Korean request to keep the schedule secret. That indiscretion was reportedly one of the "technical difficulties" that led the North on Saturday to ask that the summit be postponed for one day.

The itinerary shows that the 76-year-old South Korean president will visit a performing arts school for children and the ancient gate to Pyongyang, and eat North Korea's famous cold noodles. However, he will not pay respects at the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the North Korean founder and father of Kim Jong Il -- a required pilgrimage for most foreign visitors.

For most of the last two years, even as it suffered through diplomatic isolation, economic collapse and a widespread famine, the North's propaganda continued to scorn Kim, and his so-called Sunshine Policy toward Pyongyang, treating him as a puppet of the United States.

But since Kim gave a speech in Berlin in March, pledging a vast commitment of resources from the relatively rich South to help rebuild the North, relations between the two countries have taken a sharp turn.

The South Korean leader's speech coincided with surprising changes in North Korea's ties with the rest of the world, as the reclusive northern leader began some bold diplomatic moves.

"This all began with our president's inauguration," said Kim Myong Shik, a spokesman for the South's government. "Then came Berlin, and the North's opening. Now we have a summit."

"Don't think it will stop here," he added. "Things will keep moving like this. It is a change of the times."

The summit pairs two men whose careers reflect the gulf that separates democratic South Korea and communist North Korea.

As an opposition leader, South Korea's Kim was jailed, sentenced to death and, he says, the target of four assassination attempts. He won election to the nation's top office on his fourth attempt, and he has received international accolades as a defender of human rights.

The North's Kim, on the other hand, was reared from childhood to succeed his father as head of a totalitarian state and heir to a personality cult that lends him mythical status. He rarely appears in public, and he is suspected of masterminding terrorist attacks on South Korean targets, including the 1987 mid-air bombing of a Korean Air plane that killed all 115 people on board.

Both Koreas have been supported by their main allies, which are eager for peace but anxious to see their interests protected.

Traveling outside of North Korea for the first time since succeeding his father as leader in 1994, Kim Jong Il entered Beijing secretly by special train this month, reaffirming the special relationship between the two communist countries, which fought together against American and southern troops in the Korean War.

At practically the same time, the southern leader met in Tokyo with President Clinton and Japan's prime minister, Yoshiro Mori.

The United States and Japan are pushing for North Korea to end suspected programs to develop nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Japan was shocked in 1998 by a surprise test firing of a North Korean missile that overflew its main island of Honshu, and it suspended aid and diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang for two years.

The Korean missile program has been main threat used in Washington to justify the proposed development of a $60-billion anti-missile shield.

As a result of an incentive effort by Washington conceived by former Defense Secretary William Perry, Pyongyang has suspended any firing of long-range ballistic missiles for the past year.

In advance of the summit, Pyongyang has remained all but sealed. Visiting business executives and tourist groups were banned weeks ago, and even accredited diplomats caught outside the country during the preparations had to postpone their return.

The contrast with Seoul could not be more evident. There, the meeting has been the occasion for mass prayer sessions and parties alike, neither of which the tightly controlled and economically devastated North is particularly known for. The South has even issued commemorative stamps.

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