SEOUL — The posh, temperate island resort of Cheju off the southwestern tip of Korea, a favorite honeymoon spot of young Koreans, was the recent venue for a political honeymoon. For the first time in nearly half a century, the defense ministers of North and South Korea met to discuss how to reduce tensions. The talks produced vague promises to settle military issues and continue talking. But like the old saw of the singing dog, the point is not that it sung well, but that it sung at all. Three months after the inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and his Northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il, the defense ministers' meeting was another milestone in a series of remarkable developments: separated families reuniting; reconnecting the trans-Korean railway from Seoul to Shiniju on the Chinese border; and the two Koreas marching under one flag at the Sydney Olympics. Tomorrow, Pyongyang's top general travels to Washington, where he will meet with President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
Actually, peace hasn't quite broken out. The last glacier of the Cold War is only starting to thaw. For all the warm and cuddly atmospherics, not a single one of North Korea's 12,000 long-range artillery tubes or 600,000 forward-deployed forces within 60 miles of the demilitarized zone have budged an inch. Pyongyang's ballistic-missile program and chemical weapons remain, and it has yet to surrender its plutonium that led to the 1994 nuclear crisis. Nor has Seoul beaten its swords into plowshares and asked the 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea to leave.
It is not the first time that a flurry of North-South diplomatic activity raised hopes that the two countries were moving from confrontation to reconciliation. In 1972, the shock of President Richard M. Nixon's opening to China spurred the two Koreas to make flowery statements about peace and reunification. Again in 1991, the shock of the end of the Cold War led North Korea to sign a sweeping Agreement on Non-Aggression and Reconciliation that provides a solid framework for peace in Korea. None of it was ever implemented, as mutual distrust prevailed.
But unlike previous efforts at reconciliation, this time around there is more than abundant symbolism to point to. Though some 10 million South Koreans have relatives in the North, 100 separated families from North and South have met, with two more sets of visits planned. The rebuilding of 12 miles of railroad track to reconnect the trans-Korean railway has begun, including de-mining the area around the DMZ. A regular economic cooperation committee has been created, and Kim Jong Il has agreed to set up an industrial park at Kaesong, just across the DMZ, an important hint that he is moving toward some economic opening. This is concrete progress.
Why all this now? The honest answer is that nobody knows why the secretive Kim Jong Il suddenly emerged from his shell with great fanfare. Desperation is certainly one reason. Since losing its Soviet welfare check in 1990, North Korea's economy has shrunk by nearly two-thirds, with estimates that up to 1 million have died of starvation. Another theory is that only recently has Kim Jong Il consolidated power enough to allow such freedom of action.
Some cynics would cite another reason. After getting Washington's attention with its nuclear-weapons program in 1993, North Korea has depended on the kindness of strangers for the regime's survival. The U.S. alone has provided more than $700 million in fuel oil and food over the past five years. But last year, after Congress mandated a review of Korea policy, the game changed. Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry concluded that a new approach was needed and went to Pyongyang to explain it to the North. Future largess from Washington would depend on North Korea's willingness to give up its three generations of ballistic missiles and fully cooperate on nuclear issues. Only now, 15 months later, is Pyongyang sending its special envoy to Washington, though it is viewed as a largely symbolic visit.
Kim Jong Il may have concluded he had gotten most of what there was to obtain from the United States without making concessions on things he and his military value. So the North Koreans took their ball and went elsewhere. And the logical choice was South Korea, fearful of the cost of picking up the pieces if the North collapses. After all, since he took office in 1998, South Korea's Kim Dae Jung has been trying to pry open North Korea.