SPENCER MICHELS: If the historic summit between North and South Korea takes place as announced today, it will end five decades of virtual isolation for the Communist regime of North Korea.
It would also fulfill the promise of South Korea's president to improve relations between the two countries that occupy the Korean peninsula. North Korea, a country of 24 million people, is largely off- limits to most foreigners.
It's on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. And little is known of its leader, Kim Jong Il, who assumed office after his father died in 1994.
For the past three years, North Korea has suffered through a severe famine that's taken at least a million lives.That tragedy has been blamed on agricultural policy blunders, the cutoff of aid from the Former Soviet Union, and a series of droughts. But recently, North Korea has been cautiously opening its doors. It established diplomatic relations with Italy in January, and is seeking to improve relations with the U.S., Great Britain, Japan and Australia.
Today, the two Koreas announced they'll participate in a first- ever summit between heads of state in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in June. Among the expected agenda items will be the reunification of some ten million Koreans separated by the Korean War from 1950 to '53.
YOO CHONG SOO, Seoul, South Korea (translated): I hope this meeting will present an opportunity to meet dispersed families in the North.
SPENCER MICHELS: The summit will come 50 years to the month after North Korea invaded the South, commencing the three-year war that brought in Chinese and the U.S. soldiers. In total, the conflict killed more than three million people, including 54,000 American troops. The war ended with a truce, but no treaty. Since 1953, the peninsula has been divided along the 38th Parallel. Some 37,000 American soldiers are still stationed in Korea, including those who stand watch at the so-called demilitarized zone.
For South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, the summit announcement comes just three days in advance of crucial parliamentary elections. His conservative political opponents have been strongly critical of Kim's efforts to restore relations with the North. But tensions have remained, especially after North Korea's 1998 launching of a missile over Japan. The announcement of the summit was met with cautious optimism in Washington, and also among Asian neighbors of both Koreas.
MARGARET WARNER: For analysis of this development, we get three views: Joel Wit was the State Department coordinator in charge of implementing the 1994 agreement with North Korea, which was designed to curb that country's nuclear weapons program. He is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. Tony Namkung is a consultant who has served as an informal liaison between the U.S. and North Korean governments. And Chuck Downs was deputy director of the Pentagon's Asia Policy Office from 1991 to 1996. He is the author of Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy. And he is currently a senior foreign and defense policy advisor to the Republican Policy Committee on Capitol Hill, though the views he expresses are his own. Welcome gentlemen. What is the significance of this step, Joel Wit? Do you see this as a big deal?
JOEL WIT, Former State Department Official: Well, I think it is a very significant step forward. As your opening piece stated, the United States along with South Korea and Japan for the past six or seven years has been trying to establish a better relationship with North Korea. And it's obviously been a very difficult path for all of us. Now, with the perspective summit, I think we're seeing real signs of maybe a thaw in the relationship between North and the South, which is central to bringing North Korea into the international system.
MARGARET WARNER: But South Korea has been asking for a dialogue for a long time, and North Korea has always rebuffed South Korea. What does this tell you that now they've agreed, the North has agreed?
JOEL WIT: Well, I think it's very interesting. It may tell us things about North Korea which we can only speculate on, but one thing it tells us about North Korea is that they have very severe difficulties, severe economic difficulties. You've seen a lot of news about the problems with their food situation. And I think they have concluded that one of the ways of dealing with these difficulties is to try to get assistance from the outside world.
MARGARET WARNER: Tony Namkung, how do you see this development? Do you think this is highly significant, and why do you think it's happening now?
TONY NAMKUNG, Consultant: It's a stunning development, and I think that it warms the hearts of Koreans everywhere, North and South and overseas. I think that it should be recalled, first of all, that North Korea participated fully in the negotiations that led to the 1991-1992 basic accords, far-reaching accords that call for a new era of peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas. This is part of an unfolding of a strategic design on their part that's been in place for at least ten years now. More immediately, I think the flexibility shown by President Kim Dae-Jung of South Korea in recent months, particularly with reference to the personal qualities of General Secretary Kim Jong Il of North Korea and his move away from almost exclusive emphasis on reform and opening to the theme of peaceful coexistence is what has brought this very important development to pass.
MARGARET WARNER: Stunning development, Chuck Downs?
CHUCK DOWNS, Former Pentagon Official: It is a very interesting development. It is a major shift in North Korea's approach, as we've seen it develop over the last few months. And whenever these occur, we have to look very carefully at what some of the causes are. What we are seeing is that for a long time, North Korea took a very soft approach to the U.S. and a very hard approach to South Korea. As Tony says, there has been very little positive reaction to Kim Dae-Jung's policy up to this point. So this is a major shift. What it indicates to us, though, and what we Americans need to be very careful about is that in the next few months, there will be an increasing amount of pressure from North Korea against the United States, and they are making these overtures to South Korea in order to help create a block to any U.S. reaction to provocations that they are now planning.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain what you mean, moves against the United States.
CHUCK DOWNS: North Korea negotiates only for three purposes: They are a regime that cannot rely on domestic control, on the domestic loyalty of their own people. So the first thing they need are things to help them get that domestic control. The second thing they always try to get is aid, because they have to make up for their dismal economic failures. And the third thing they always try to do is to hurt the alliances that are formed against them to increase their own military capabilities and to reduce the military capabilities of others. Those are the three objectives they will take to the talks with South Korea, assuming these talks occur, and of course, we're saying that this is a historic event when actually it's an event that has not yet occurred, and it remains to be seen whether it will.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Tony Namkung, what do you make of Mr. Downs analysis?
TONY NAMKUNG, Consultant: Well I'm a little puzzled by the apparently sudden shift in Mr. Downs' thinking away from a belief in the rock-solid nature of the alliance between the U.S. and R.O.K. and what now appears to be an attempt to drive a wedge between ourselves and South Korea. It's a little puzzling, I must say.
MARGARET WARNER: But explain that a little further. I mean, hasn't the U.S. in fact been urging North Korea to do this? Haven't the U.S. and North Korea been in talks recently?
TONY NAMKUNG: Well, yes. I think the broader strategic picture is as follows: With the normalization of relations between South Korea and the former Soviet Union and China in the early 1990's, North Korea has now reached the point where it has had ongoing talks to improve relations with the U.S., and now just beginning last week, talks with Japan to normalize its relations. It's come to feel that the playing field is more level and that the time has come to resume the dialogue with South Korea, that it pushed very hard for ten years ago that led to the basic accords.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Wit, what about South Korea's incentive here? What is South Korea's big-picture goal vis-à-vis the North?
JOEL WIT: Well, I think the big picture goal is to try to have a more normal relationship with North Korea. And that's always been...
MARGARET WARNER: In absence of all the belligerence, at least?
JOEL WIT: That's always the been the goal of South Korea for many years, but the problem has been, I think as Tony has eluded to, the North has really not been interested, because the North sees the South as a political third rail. I mean, after all, you have North Korea, which is having grave economic difficulties. They have food problems. They have all sorts of problems. And yet South Korea is a successful, vibrant country. And so I think from the North Korean perspective, they have to be very careful how much contact they have with the South. And that means keeping them at arm's length. Now, to some it may not mean an end to that, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
MARGARET WARNER: It does raise the question, how close can this regime in North Korea, Chuck Downs, be or let the two countries become without it threatening their power?
CHUCK DOWNS: They can be close enough so that they can invite the South Korean president to come to Pyongyang, where it appears to their own people he may be apologizing for the war. This is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, as your segment pointed out. And there are a number of benefits they can get simply from having Kim Dae-Jung come to Pyongyang. It is a very significant thing that the president of South Korea actually agreed to go there, rather than having people from North Korea come to South Korea.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they also want, though, investment? There has been greater South Korea at least private firm investment in the North. How far can that go before it underlines the whole economic system on which the North is based?
CHUCK DOWNS: They have been extremely careful and extremely clever at managing the kind of investment that has come in. They have tried to insulate it from the rest of the population. There are some places where it has leaked through, and where there seems to be money floating. And just the floating of money -- some people in Washington argue --creates a whole new system that starts a sort of nuclear chain reaction. I'm not at all convinced that this is the case. I think that this regime is so totalitarian that they can keep that under complete control, and I think if you look at the kind of aid, $380 million, that has gone to Korea from the outside world just in the last year, if you look at the aid and their military capabilities, they're exactly the same. The military capabilities increase as aid increases from the outside. They use it for military benefit.
MARGARET WARNER: Tony Namkung, what do you think North Korea realistically hopes to get out of this meeting?
TONY NAMKUNG: I think the longer term strategic design here is to pull the U.S. into the arena to have the U.S. act as a stabilizing force, as a harmonizing force between the two Koreas. I was pleased to see President Clinton say earlier today that he wished to congratulate both leaders for their courage in agreeing to this summit.
MARGARET WARNER: And on economic... economically, though, how much investment and engagement do you think the North really wants from the South?
TONY NAMKUNG: Well, we have already 140 companies doing business with North Korea from South Korea. Mr. Downs has tried to give the impression of a investment environment that is inhospitable to the outside investor. I think it's exactly the opposite. The South Korean medium and small-sized enterprises as President Kim Dae-Jung has stated over the weekend, will now move in full force into the North.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Wit, Mr. Downs said earlier he wasn't sure this meeting will actually take place. And the North's history has certainly been one step forward, two steps back. Do you think something could derail this?
JOEL WIT: I think the fact that there's been a public announcement, both in the South and the North, makes it more likely that this meet willing happen. There certainly are some details that have to be worked out by lower-level officials, but barring any unforeseen events like another submarine incursion from the North into the South or really violent episodes like that, I think it is going to take place.
MARGARET WARNER: What are your expectations?
CHUCK DOWNS: I also think it will take place, because I think it has stacked to the North Korean's benefit. I think they see a number of ways they can use it to their advantage, not the least of which is this proximity to the anniversary of the Korean War, and not the least of which is the fact that Kim Dae-Jung may appear to be apologizing or paying tribute to the North Korean regime. But the reason for the announcement is even more interesting, and you pointed it out in the film clip. Elections are being held this Thursday, and this will provide a tremendous boost in South Korea for those who advocate giving aid to North Korea.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. We have to leave it there. But more to come. Thank you all three very much