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Coming Together: North and South Korea

June 14, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The Korea story. Our coverage begins with this report by Ian Williams of independent television news. Like all western journalists, he reported from the South Korean capital of Seoul, based on pool reports sent from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang by South Korean reporters.

IAN WILLIAMS: The two Kims emerged tonight, following several hours of negotiations, both men hailing an historic breakthrough on the road towards unification. The South’s Kim Dae Jung seems to have won commitments on reuniting divided families in exchange for investment and aid. Northern officials say there will be a return visit to Seoul. Both sides say it will reduce tension on the peninsula. They’d started their meeting mid-afternoon. There was a warm handshake and a smile for the South Korean leader when they met again today. Not only has the North’s Kim Jong Il rarely been seen in public before this summit, but prior to a recent visit to China, he’d only ever uttered ten recorded words. By those standards he was positively verbose.

KIM JONG IL: (speaking through interpreter) Some Europeans say that I’m reclusive, that this the first time I’ve appeared in public. In fact, I’ve been to China and Indonesia. I’ve made many secret visits abroad. How can people claim I’m reclusive?

IAN WILLIAMS: As the Northern Kim confirms, unlike his fellow countrymen, he’s able to watch television broadcasts from the South.

KIM JONG IL: (speaking through interpreter) I was watching South Korean television until last night. I saw how excited the South Koreans were, especially those with family in the North, the North Korean defectors. Some were even crying.

RAY SUAREZ: And Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: The two leaders issued a joint declaration after their talks today. And according to an unofficial translation by the South Korean government, they agreed to do the following: Promote reunification of the two Koreas, while noting that the North and South have proposed different frameworks for doing so; promptly allow separated families to visit and address the plight of Communists imprisoned in the South and promote balanced economic development and cooperation between the two countries. They said lower level officials would negotiate ways to implement the agreement expeditiously. They also said the North Korean leader, Chairman Kim, would visit Seoul at an appropriate time. For perspective on all these developments, we turn to: James Lilley, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea during the Reagan administration, and Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration; Joel Wit, former coordinator of the U.S.-North Korean agreement to curb the North’s nuclear program — he’s now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution; and David Kang, Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. Welcome, gentlemen. David Kang, starting with you, how do you look upon this summit? Is this a big deal? Is this a significant event or just atmospherics?

DAVID KANG: Well, I think it’s significant in a symbolic sense, not necessarily substantive. If they work out these deals about the families, that’s fine. But I think the real meaning of it is that they actually got together for the first time, and that’s really significant.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of the atmospherics? Particularly… we didn’t show this tonight, but last night we showed the video of the two men greeting one another at the airport, seemed very emotional, unusually warm, considering how reclusive the North has seemed in general and this North Korean leader. What did you make of that?

DAVID KANG: Well, I think it’s further evidence that North Korea really wants to try and open up. They’re not about to sort of claim that capitalism is the only way, but I think that Kim Jung Il is generally interested in better regional relations, and I think this is the evidence of it. Again, I thought it was wonderful.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of this, James Lilley, this whole summit?

JAMES LILLEY: Well, I think the North Koreans were determined to have a success and ordered success and that’s what happened. A crowd, they were out there, 600,000 of them — the focus was on Kim Jung Il. His own people didn’t see much of it, you know.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

JAMES LILLEY: But they broadcast it selective to the South. It was focused very much on him. He wanted the success very badly because he’s in very bad economic shape. He has to open up new channels of support. He has to open up North Korea to the world because his previous policy wasn’t working. And I think he found in President Jim Dae Jung a very enlightened, smart man… who had proposed this for a long time. And this was the time to move because President Kim Dae Jung said very clearly “I don’t want to absorb you but I will not tolerate military provocations.” It was a good message.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of this?

JOEL WIT: Well, I agree with everything that’s been said so far, but one of the really interesting things about this meeting has been the conduct of public diplomacy by Kim Jung Il. His visit to Beijing and now his meeting with Kim Dae Jung has kind of transformed his public image, and you saw that in the report prior to our discussion. He’s becoming someone who everyone is viewing as someone they can work with, rather than, you know, the shadowy figure who may have inspired terrorist actions in the past. So it’s a very interesting aspect of what’s going on here.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see in this agreement concrete things that really will go a way towards opening up relations between these two countries?

JOEL WIT: Well, I think, you know, these are small steps, they’re not insignificant. The family reunion issue has been one that’s been on the table for a long time, and it has a lot of humanitarian symbolism in the South. Some of the other steps are small but also important. But I think we have to put this in perspective and avoid getting too carried away with the results of this first summit.

MARGARET WARNER: David Kang, you said the real test of course will be implementing this. What will it take to make these agreements work because the language– and we just ran it– the language is fairly vague?

DAVID KANG: Well, I think I agree with Joel in that the importance here isn’t necessarily whether they get this… the family reunions going in the next six months or something because, you know, trying to get North Korea to open up is going to inevitably be a very long process and there’s going to be a lot of fits and starts. And so I think it’s wonderful that they had this and this summit meeting. But to sort of expect that things are going to be rosy from now on I think is expecting too much. It’s going to be a very long process.

MARGARET WARNER: But then when you say it’s important in a symbolic sense, what does that really mean?

DAVID KANG: I think it means… first of all, it means to people like… as we’ve all said that, you know, look, there’s Kim Jung Il, he’s not as reclusive and as bizarre as we might think. It’s a very good public relations ploy, so to speak, and sort of showing that you can work with him. Because you know, it’s very easy to sort of not understand where North Korea’s coming from. So I think that’s very important that they’re actually meeting and talking and being in front of reporters.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But take that one step further. In the past, North Korea has appeared not to care about public relations. Why does it care?

DAVID KANG: I think they have to right now. You know, they’re in deep trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: So Jim Lilley, the question is — do you think North Korea, under this fairly new leader– I mean he’s been in six years– wants to actually change its system a little bit so that economically it moves away from a sort of command economy, or is it just… and therefore, gets western investment, or do you think it simply just wants aid, a bailout, whether it’s agricultural or other things?

JAMES LILLEY: Well, that’s your $64,000 question. Obviously, they have to change because they are starving to death, their industries are closed down and they can’t supply energy. And they’ve had to look for other sources of support. And the one thing that he did was to go right straight to China on May 31 and look at legend and perhaps get a briefing on decollectivization of agriculture and investment in agriculture. The Chinese did this in ’78 very successfully. They got a message for him, and I think he’s mentioned — for the first time, praised their system. He’s been very critical of it before because of selling out socialism. This has changed.

I think this is something you want to watch very carefully. The second thing I think that’s rather important to see is the background of this, is that he had to line up China and Russia behind him before he really went into the summit. He went to China, and he’s got Putin coming in July — because Kim Dae Jung went in with a very powerful hand, U.S., Japan, South Korea all in alignment after the Perry mission and I think this was a very formidable thing he was faced with. But it’s also interesting to note in the North Korean propaganda, they have turned up the blast on the United States, and it’s the United States forces in South Korea. They’ve dragged up Kwong Ju, the massacre in Kwong Ju in 1980 – they’ve said America started the Korean War in 1950. And they’ve gone back to No Gun Ri, where the massacre took place in ’50, and they said this is American perfidy in South Korea.

So as David and others have said, we’re in for a long haul on this one. There’s good signs out there. A lot of good things have happened in this romantic, emotional– there’s so much emotion involved in this thing, and it taps into this emotion, and I think that’s very important. The symbols are crucial right now because the North Koreans and South Koreans don’t take an army of lawyers with them. They reach an agreement by looking in the other man’s eye and judging his nunchi, the measurement of his eyes, his intentions. And I think this is what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you how, Joel Wit, see what’s going on in North Korea? Just pick up on what Jim Lilley said in terms of whether they want to… whether they’re ready to, for instance, abandon the completely controlled state economy or whether they still want to have it both ways.

JOEL WIT: Well, you know, I think it really is too soon to tell whether there is going to be real domestic change in North Korea. And I think that they probably do want to have it both ways. And so far, they’ve managed to at least bottom out in terms of their economic decline, or at least according to the latest figures. So they may think that if they can increase the amount of international assistance to their country, that may help them avoid making real change. And in a sense, it–

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about aid now, just essentially aid, but they can use it their own way and just prop up their system?

JOEL WIT: Right. I mean it’s kind of perverse because there probably are people in North Korea in the political system, in the leadership, who are interested in some gradual change. But if the economy bottoms out because of economic assistance from abroad, it takes the pressure off for a change.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you see this question, David Kang, in terms of how much desire there is for really changing the system, versus propping up the system?

DAVID KANG: Again, I would go with what the other two speakers have said, which is it’s really too early to tell. But the types of changes that they have made have been sort of consequential and they’ve come from the top leadership all the way down. There’s… not only are they looking for humanitarian aid, but they’ve changed their constitution, and they’re trying to get the laws in place to allow foreign aid and repatriation of profits. You know, we don’t know yet because no one’s willing to invest in North Korean whether they’re sincere or not. The South Koreans – there’s over 700 South Koreans living North Korea right now who are working with various companies. So, yeah, this hasn’t been a dramatic shift and it’s not going to be like tomorrow we’re going to wake up it’s going to be a capitalist economy. But in terms of sort of getting into a transition phase, they’ve certainly begun to take some of the steps.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean internally, they have made some changes?

DAVID KANG: Oh, yeah. And some are sort of interesting. Like English is now the required foreign language in high school, not Russian anymore.

JOEL WIT: I just wanted to place a little historical perspective here. There have been signs, I think, since at least the 1980s that there has been interest in change in North Korea, inside North Korea, interest in economic change. And we’ve seen periods where there have been one step forward in terms of change, but then nothing much more happens, or else there’s a step backward. So I think, you know, there are conflicts within the North Korean leadership about whether they can change or not.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the South Korean leadership, Jim Lilley? What’s going on there?

JAMES LILLEY: Well, I had a chance to spend a lot of time with the leadership in the last three weeks. I was there in South Korea and met everybody from the top all the way through. I would say…

MARGARET WARNER: Including the president?

JAMES LILLEY: Including the president. And what I see emerging in the South is a very interesting phenomenon, is the rise of Korea — that Korea is aiming to become a country of 70 million people at some point, going through this transitional phase of confederation, commonwealth, European Union-type arrangement, living side by side, comparative advantage in economies, where the North has cheap labor, land, the South has capital, management, technology. They put it together — in some ways, like Taiwan-China. You put it together, you get a package and it starts to work for you, but you keep the two sides separated politically. The South Korean businessmen– David’s right, some of them have gone in there, but Samsung and some of the other companies are really fairly cautious about this. The profit just isn’t there. The infrastructure’s too far behind. The laws are not being implemented. There is a real ignorance of finance… international financial… they’ve tried, but they’re not there yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just mention something that President Kim said last night in the banquet… or I get the nights confused here because of the date line. But anyway, he said, “if both sides joined forces, Korea could become a first-class nation.”

JAMES LILLEY: That is laced through this whole thing, and that is the first thing they say in the new five-point. It comes out of Parchunhi in 1972, “we will do it as Koreans.” And that is the first statement. And you’re going to get a lot more I think of the Koreans doing it themselves. The Americans did it between ’93 and 2000. We took the lead on it. Now the Koreans have taken the lead back and I think that’s a very healthy sign in many ways.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re nodding, Joel Wit.

JOEL WIT: No. I agree with everything he said. It’s very clear that over the past six or seven years, as Ambassador Lilley said, the whole Korean problem had become internationalized because of the nuclear crisis, and the U.S. took the lead. So now you’ll see a lot of statements about now Korea will solve its own problems and the other powers should look on and maybe contribute to that. But the two Koreas will be at the center of the process.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

JAMES LILLEY: I just want to add something on the economy, Margaret. You know, they went through, in 20, 30 years ago, the whole business of turnkey plats from Europe and defaulted on all their debts. They tried to do it once. In ’93, they admitted economic failure. So you see an evolution coming to them, looking for new solutions. Whether they come to the right solution, we simply don’t know yet.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all three very much.