Historic Handshake in Korea
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IAN WILLIAMS, ITN: Nobody had expected Kim Jong Il to turn up in person, but there he was, the reclusive North Korean dictator, marching purposefully across the tarmac. The crowd cheered on cue as the aircraft carrying the South Korean President taxied to a halt. When President Kim Dae Jung emerged, he scanned the horizon before an aide pointed out the portly man in glasses standing smack at the bottom of the steps. And thus, history was made. The two Kims acknowledged and applauded each other. There was a warm handshake — the first meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas in 55 years. They’d agreed there’d be no national anthems or flags.
The South Korean President had planned to give an emotional speech, but the “Dear Leader,” as Kim Jong Il likes to be known, asked him not to. The two Kims traveled in the same car for the 40-minute drive from the airport, chatting casually and sometimes holding hands, according to officials. It seemed like the entire population of Pyongyang had been mobilized for the occasion, lining the streets in national dress and waving identical bunches of paper flowers. The agenda of this three-day summit has been kept deliberately vague. At their first formal meeting, Kim Jong Il promised “dialogue without reserve,” while the southern Mr. Kim said he hoped for a new era, something he elaborated on at a state dinner this evening.
PRESIDENT KIM DAE-JUNG, South Korea (Translated): It is my earnest hope that through this half century of distrust and compensation will turn into reconciliation and cooperation.
IAN WILLIAMS: There is an enormous divide to overcome. Up to two million troops face each other across the heavily fortified border separating the two Koreas– the South backed by 37,000 Americans with nuclear weapons. Little wonder President Clinton has called this border the “scariest place on earth.” There’s been hardly any contact across it since the end of the Korean War. This is as close as most South Koreans can get to their cousins in the North. The buildings across the river here are perhaps a mile away, but they are a world apart.
While the South has prospered, the economy of the North is crumbling and can barely feed its people. There are few cars to be seen on the streets of Pyongyang, just a traffic policewoman performing without an audience. Cynics say the North is opening up to the South out of economic desperation. Tightly controlled North Korean Television usually heaps unadulterated abuse on South Korea. But today, they gave extensive coverage to the summit, describing it as “an historic moment to open the gate between North and South.” The South’s Mr. Kim was afforded unusual respect. Tonight he was treated to a folk performance, heavy on tradition rather than politics. Hopes have been raised and dashed before. But the fact this summit is taking place at all is the most hopeful event in 50 years of Cold War on the Korean Peninsula.