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S. Korea still warm to a thaw with North

A mood of optimism buoys reconciliation efforts after a deal on nuclear disarmament.

March 26, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — South Koreans watched with irritation as the North Korean delegation stormed out of nuclear talks last week. They listened patiently Sunday as the government in Pyongyang denounced annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises as a "war of aggression."

But none of the North's characteristic volatility seems about to throw South Korea off stride from a renewed push for reconciliation with its neighbor.

Since last month's six-party deal on North Korea's nuclear program, the South Korean government has been eager to reboot cross-border programs that had been put on hold by Pyongyang's missile test and underground nuclear explosion.

Food aid to the North will resume this week. Video-link reunions for about 200 North and South Korean families separated after the civil war also are scheduled to restart this week, a small relief of the pent-up demand from tens of thousands of families desperate to see their relatives at least one last time.

South Korean construction workers have gone back to their jobs at the Kaesong industrial complex just north of the demilitarized zone, the joint economic venture that is a cornerstone of Seoul's policy of engagement with the North.

And political chatter in Seoul has focused on the possibility of a summit meeting between the two nation's leaders, perhaps as early as this summer.

It is hardly surprising that South Korea's government seized upon the optimism generated by the nuclear program agreement to renew its pursuit of a detente. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and the liberal-leaning government are committed to the engagement policy, which uses aid and investment to try to build economic and personal links to the North.

What is less certain is the degree of enthusiasm among the South Korean people for a resumption of aid and cooperation with such a mercurial partner.

Government officials say they detect renewed optimism among voters for a normalization of relations. They point to a Yonhap News poll published March 18 that showed more than three-quarters of respondents support a summit between the two leaders. More than half of those polled wanted the meeting held before the South's presidential election in December.

South Korean government officials say privately that they detect a greater degree of confidence in the North Koreans, but they continue to express caution about rushing to reestablish state-level ties. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon called the North Korean delegation "a headache and a hard-to-understand group" after its walkout from the talks last week.

Roh also said it was too early to consider holding a summit with Kim Jong Il. The South Koreans worry that the popular mood could sour if North Korea misses deadlines on commitments to dismantle its nuclear power plant and open its program up to inspection.

But the Seoul government is also eager to show results from its commitment to engagement with the North. On Friday, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung told parliament that it was holding talks with the North to send former President Kim Dae-jung there as a special envoy to arrange a summit.

In many ways, enthusiasm for the engagement policy never really waned. Even before the six-party deal was reached in February, South Korean tourists had resumed visits to North Korea's Mt. Kumgang resort, run by a Southern firm, in the same numbers as the previous year. And although a handful of new investors in the Kaesong complex pulled out after last year's nuclear test, most companies say they are proceeding with plans for construction.

Private sports and cultural exchanges also are up and running. North Korea's highly ranked Under-17 national soccer team arrived on South Korea's temperate Jeju island amid great media curiosity last week. The team will train for a month and play a couple of friendly exhibition matches against its South Korean counterpart.

The invitation to the North Korean team was issued in January, when the outcome of the six-party talks was still uncertain.

"Successful six-party talks can help our exchanges, but we are not totally dependent on political relations," said Lee Taejeong of the Inter-Korean Sports Exchange Assn., which sponsored the North Korean team's visit. "We try to keep politics out of sports. The better political mood just gives us a brighter perspective. There's a sense of hope right now."

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