South Koreans Wait for North to Return the Favor ; A Year after a Groundbreaking Meeting, Inter-Korean Progress Is Stalled

By Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

South Koreans Wait for North to Return the Favor ; A Year after a Groundbreaking Meeting, Inter-Korean Progress Is Stalled


Ilene R. Prusher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


That is Korean for "when," and it has become the hot question here: When will North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pay a visit to South Korea, as he promised during the extraordinary inter-Korean summit a year ago?

The first meeting between the leaders of the capitalist South and communist North since the division of the peninsula more than half a century ago took place last June. But the North's Chairman Kim has still not confirmed any plans for a reciprocal visit.

That looks especially bad for the South's Kim, whose popularity has been sagging despite international recognition for his "sunshine policy," which won him last year's Nobel Peace Prize. With few other aspects of North-South reconciliation on track - negotiations, an inter-Korean railroad, a hotline, and family reunions are all on hold - the elusive visit is evolving into a hoop that must be jumped through before the show can go on.

"Not long ago, I asked North Korea to inform us of when Chairman Kim Jong Il will be able to visit Seoul. I want to remind them again today," South Korea's Kim said earlier this month.

Some say that such statements only make President Kim appear weaker, groveling for equal treatment from his younger, poorer counterpart. Yet a visit by Chairman Kim appears to have been elevated to the top of the South Korean government's wish list of CBMs - diplomatese for confidence-building measures.

"We may be putting too much emphasis on a ... visit," says former foreign minister Han Sung-joo. "We want him to come and yet when he does we don't know what that will do. It may divide South Korean society further."

Some analysts here say that President Kim is falling in line with popular sentiment, which seems to be abuzz with one demand from North Korea: reciprocity. That is also the catchphrase of the Bush administration, whose newly jelled North Korea policy is "comprehensive reciprocity." a term understood to include discussions of everything from nuclear missiles to the last tank posted along the heavily-armed "demilitarized zone" between North and South Korea.

Others wonder whether the importance President Kim is placing on a visit could provide a stumbling block to more substantive issues. "They're turned the visit into a litmus test of the credibility of the North Korean leadership," says Scott Snyder, the Asia Foundation's representative in Seoul.

That is not to disparage the significance of a trip by Kim to South Korea, a country that still harbors mistrust toward him. Korea's Confucian roots, which holds elders and ancestors in great esteem, mean that the older Kim's calling on the younger Kim first seems out of the natural order. The lack of a return visit could be perceived as an insult.

Moreover, history has proved the potential power of a leader's visit to "enemy" territory. From President Nixon's visit to China to Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, state sojourns have opened doors and proved more than symbolic.

But many say Chairman Kim seems far from ready to fling open North Korea's doors to the world. A visit would subject him, for example, to the feisty South Korean press. At last June's summit in Pyongyang, 50 South Korean journalists were allowed in under tight supervision, but virtually no other foreign press.

"The summit last year was a highly orchestrated affair, and that's a lot easier to do in Pyongyang," says Kyongsoo Lho, a professor of International Politics at Seoul National University. "North Koreans will be worried about how their image is portrayed in the South."

North Korea's leader will probably use the visit to barter for tangibles. The country desperately needs aid in the form of food, funds, and electricity.

Perhaps "one of the main reasons Kim Jong Il hasn't showed up yet is that a lot of economic benefits that were hinted at the beginning of this process have not come through," adds Mr. …

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