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Reconciliation Bid Falters for 2 Koreas

Asia: Moves toward reunification are halted amid U.S.-led war on terrorism, political uncertainties in South.

November 29, 2001|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — The rapprochement between North and South Korea, which only last year raised hopes for reunification, is rapidly unraveling in the shadow of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and political uncertainties in the South.

The most recent round of North-South talks ended two weeks ago with so much bickering about dates and venues that all plans for future meetings were shelved.

Reconstruction of the railroad that linked the sides before the 1950-53 Korean War has stopped. Plans for another heart-wrenching round of family reunions have been scrapped. A pilot project by Hyundai Group to bring South Korean tourists northward by cruise ship might soon be docked for lack of business.

After a period of relative civility, North Korea's prolific propaganda machine is again spitting out daily bulletins accusing South Korea and the United States of assorted outrages.

And for the first time in more than three years, there was a brief exchange of gunfire Tuesday between North and South Korean forces in the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that is one of the last frontiers of the Cold War.

Although the incident apparently was started by shots fired accidentally from a North Korean guard post--and nothing more serious than a broken window resulted--a South Korean official said Wednesday that the incident "could reflect some skittishness" on the part of North Korea.

'Sunshine Policy' Fades

It is widely conceded in Seoul, the South Korean capital, that the South's so-called sunshine policy toward the North is at best in an eclipse. Its architect, President Kim Dae Jung, appears to be backing away from it in the face of staunch domestic opposition.

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the rapprochement efforts were faltering. But the attacks and the war in Afghanistan have created a new and decidedly chillier environment in which it is ever more difficult for the Koreas to come to terms. North Korea has been infuriated by a state of alert declared in Seoul after Sept. 11; South Korea says the anti-terrorism measures are aimed at protecting the 27,000 U.S. troops in the country and have little to do with North Korea.

To a large extent, the strains between North and South mirror the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and North Korea. President Bush has been blunt from the outset about his dislike of North Korea and its reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il. On Monday, Bush said in Washington that North Korea, along with Iraq, could be drawn into the U.S. war on terrorism if it does not allow inspection of suspected weapons stockpiles.

North Korea has long held a prominent place on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism, a position Pyongyang deeply resents.

"North Korea is in a vulnerable position, more so than in the past," said Rhee Bong Jo, a member of the South Korean team negotiating with the North. "The Bush administration has taken a strong stance against North Korea, and the North Koreans are using the inter-Korean dialogue as a way to show their dissatisfaction with the United States."

Talks Went Nowhere

The ill-fated ministerial talks that concluded Nov. 14 were a case in point. Even before the negotiations began, they looked doomed. The North Koreans claimed that the state of alert in the South made it unsafe for them to send a delegation to Seoul or for the South Korean delegation to cross the DMZ. As a result, the South Korean delegation had to travel by boat to a remote resort at North Korea's Mt. Kumgang, where negotiators used candles to supplement the poor lighting.

"It wasn't romantic . . . we could hardly recognize our North Korean hosts," recalled Rhee, who holds the title of assistant unification minister.

After a week of talks, with food supplies for the conference dwindling and nerves frayed, the South Korean delegation headed home, leaving the sunshine policy in shambles.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Kim Dae Jung has made a series of statements saying he would not push for a resolution of North-South relations before his term expires in February 2003. Under law, he cannot seek reelection.

"I plan to carry out the sunshine policy consistently but not forcefully," he said last week.

Kim's landmark visit to Pyongyang in June 2000 sent hopes soaring that reunification would happen in the near future. It also won the South Korean president the Nobel Peace Prize.

But support among the South Korean public for the reconciliation with North Korea is flagging. With an eye to elections next year, Kim's political opponents from the right have scored points by accusing Kim's administration of humbling itself to an ungrateful regime in Pyongyang. Some conservatives want to withhold badly needed humanitarian aid unless North Korea's attitude improves.

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