Two-Korea Talks Mark Fresh Start ; Fifty Years of Tense Relations Begin to Ease with Announcement of a First- Ever Summit

Article excerpt

More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last great vestige of the cold war in Asia may be about to crumble.

The leaders of North and South Korea will hold an unprecedented summit set for the middle of June, the two countries announced yesterday. The North-South meeting would take place just days before the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the fighting that solidified the division of the Korean peninsula, and the two sides technically remain at war.

Roughly 37,000 US troops help deter conflict along the world's most-militarized border. But when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung travels to Pyongyang, the North's capital, for talks with its leader Kim Jong Il, the result could be "epochmaking," in the words of the normally restrained Japanese foreign minister.

Although there is reason for ample skepticism at this early juncture, a summit meeting could lay the groundwork for an eventual Korean unification, which would have profound implications in Northeast Asia.

The questions over North Korea's long-range missile and nuclear weapons research might be resolved, and the US might have to rethink the role of its 100,000 troops in the region. Millions of families separated by the Korean War could be reunited.

Most urgently aid from South Korea and other countries could solve North Korea's economic crisis. Humanitarian aid from private groups and the United Nations World Food Program have served to prop up the North Korean regime and help the most needy, but the assistance has not been enough to end chronic food shortages that have killed an estimated 3 million people.

The announcement, made by South Korea's Unification Ministry and North Korean state media, comes three days before elections for South Korea's National Assembly. The news could tilt the vote in favor of Kim Dae Jung's ruling party in contested districts. In that sense, the timing of the announcement is a pre-summit gift from the North's Kim Jong Il to South Korean President Kim.

"I don't think that this is 'the breakthrough,' " says one North Korea watcher in Seoul who requested anonymity. "The interests of the two sides [are not] any more reconcilable now than they were [before]. But the two leaders probably imagine that they can trade off to mutual advantage in the near term."

North Korea could also change its mind. Just last week, it canceled an inter-Korean musical concert after accepting $1 million from the South to put it on. A high-level North Korean official canceled a trip to the United States last month when Washington refused to remove his country from its list of terrorist nations.

But promisingly, the North so far has attached no strings to the summit. …