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One-Way Street in the Koreas

October 01, 2000

South Korea says it will provide North Korea with 600,000 more tons of food to ease shortages that the U.N. World Food Program estimates threaten nearly 8 million of the North's 22 million people. South Korea has also made a start on what is supposed to be a joint project to restore a rail link between the two Koreas that was severed in 1950. Seoul, in short, is doing what it can to give substance to the hope of reduced tensions raised by President Kim Dae Jung's visit to North Korea in June. What's increasingly noticeable is Pyongyang's lack of reciprocity. Detente is increasingly looking like a one-way street.

The North has offered a lot of smiles and even a few symbolic gestures, including last week's two-day visit by its defense minister to meet with his South Korean counterpart. But those talks apparently yielded little of consequence. South Korea wants the two countries to establish a military hotline and give advance notice of troop movements, both useful methods of avoiding misunderstandings. The North seems in no hurry to agree. Further talks in November are planned.

Seoul is also eager to expand meetings between families divided by the 1950-53 war. An estimated 10 million Koreans are affected. The North has finally agreed on two more meetings before the end of the year, but it seems determined, as in August's tightly controlled reunions between 200 families, to keep the encounters brief and limited. Pyongyang also continues to spurn proposals for establishing mail and phone links.

Kim's visit to Pyongyang produced euphoria in South Korea, where many saw it as presaging an end to half a century of conflict. But the North has offered little in the way of concrete measures to support that hope. It has not set a date for the promised return visit to Seoul by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. And it has yet to announce when it will begin its share of the work on the revived railroad link.

As U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen notes, over the last year Pyongyang has strengthened its military readiness. Opposition parties in South Korea are starting to ask, not unreasonably, if their government is getting too little in return for what it's giving away.

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