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Enemies for Eternity That Now Desperately Need Each Other : Korea: Both the North and South must put their time-worn slogans and threats behind them if they are to enjoy mutual economic benefits.

March 22, 1992|Donald Kirk | Donald Kirk, a veteran foreign correspondent, has frequently visited Korea for the last 20 years

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Rumors of war and peace abound on the Korean peninsula. There is the constant suspicion, in the North and South, of a plot to get the other side to agree on ever greater concessions--and then exploit the weakness. There is the prospect of leadership changes that could either speed up the realization of every Korean's dream--peaceful reunification--or, if ego and ambition get in the way, create still deeper divisions.

For all the optimism surrounding the fitful North-South dialogue, bitterness runs so deep among Koreans that no one quite believes real change can occur without violence. Riots and killings have preceded every shift in power in the South since the Americans agreed to make it their special area of responsibility in the Allies' deal to divide the peninsula between U.S. and Soviet spheres at the end of World War II. The main reason there has been no civil war in the North is that Kim Il Sung, the onetime Soviet army major put in charge of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea at the time of its creation as a Soviet client in 1945, hangs on as one of the world's toughest, most militaristic of dictators.

But this year, by coincidence, leaders in both the South and the North may be on their way out. The South makes the first move Tuesday, with elections for the National Assembly. The outcome should indicate whether the ruling Democratic Liberal alliance, pasted together by President Roh Tae Woo in 1990, can perpetuate its rule in presidential elections in December. Roh, under terms of the agreement that resulted from his call for democracy amid some of the worst riots and demonstrations in memory in June, 1987, cannot succeed himself.

The bigger question is how the government will deal with the violence and strikes likely to hit campuses and factories this spring because of hyperinflation and continued disillusionment with the pace of political reform. Roh's predecessors, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, responded by imposing martial law. Roh may appear more "liberal" but he, too, is a product of the military--his troops supported Chun when the latter seized power two months after Park's assassination in December, 1979.

Roh's critics contend that his policies are essentially Chun's. They wonder if he can resist the comfort of martial law--especially if his party performs below expectations Tuesday. Voters are disillusioned with Kim Young Sam, Roh's leading foe in the 1987 presidential election. Kim is now executive chairman of the Democratic Liberal Party and its possible standard-bearer in December. Two of Roh's most troublesome opponents, the radical Kim Dae Jung, with his power base in the restive southwest, and Chung Ju Young, billionaire founder of the Hyundai group and head of his own fledgling but well-endowed party, may cut deeply into the Democratic Liberals' 70% assembly majority.

The political contest in the South parallels a carefully orchestrated succession in the North, where Kim Il Sung, on or about his 80th birthday April 15, may turn over a few more of his duties, if not his titles, to his son and anointed heir, Kim Jong Il. Formally elevated to the post of supreme commander of the armed forces in December, "junior Kim" is set to inherit his father's posts of state president and general secretary of the party. The only question is when. Kim Jong Il turned 50 in February--and undoubtedly believes it's high time he got more than the "great leader" accolade handed him by his father two decades ago.

Although the succession in the North appears a fait accompli , it still could degenerate into violence on a level far beyond anything likely to happen in the South. Conventional wisdom holds that "junior" faces severe opposition from within the North Korean military Establishment, among other quarters, and cannot last long after his father dies.

The question is what such political ferment means in terms of lowering the level of tensions that tie down hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone. For both sides, the need to get along for mutual economic benefit would appear to outweigh the urge to fall back on the time-worn slogans and threats that have prevented them from signing a peace treaty.

It is clearly the economic factor that has compelled the North, with obvious reluctance, not only to agree to inspections of its facilities expected to be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium in the near future but also to acquiesce to a specific timetable. A North-South joint nuclear-control commission, formally initiated last Thursday, as well as the International Atomic Energy Commission, are responsible for the inspections. Leaders in the North realize they are running out of excuses--and cannot go on forever asking for more "guarantees" and "evidence" that the United States has withdrawn its own nuclear weapons from the South.

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