S. Korea looks warily at North's overtures


SEOUL, South Korea - They arrived by the thousands on Memorial Day, bearing offerings of incense, crackers and rice wine for those who died defending South Korea from their brothers in the North.

Sitting amid a sea of granite headstones, family members of Korean War veterans sheltered themselves from the sun with brightly colored umbrellas. Some sang hymns on the freshly cropped grass at the National Cemetery. Amid the bitter memories of war, though, many expressed an uncertain sense of hope.

"I hated them so much in those days," said Lee Undo, a 73-year-old veteran, recalling how North Korean soldiers killed his brother, Hyundo, near the frontier in 1953. "But that was a long time ago. Reconciliation is important. We are the same nation, the same family."

Against that backdrop, the leaders of the two Koreas meet Tuesday in their first summit since the nations were separated at the end of World War II. The two-day meeting was scheduled to begin tomorrow, but was delayed this morning without explanation. "We just heard about it," said an official with South Korea's government information agency.

The summit might be the most important political event on the Korean Peninsula since the North and South signed a truce 47 years ago.

Long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Stalinist North Korea and democratic South Korea remain technically at war, trapped in a volatile time capsule that threatens peace in the region.

Guarding against attack from the North are 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed here. After decades of animosity, many hope that a face-to-face meeting between old enemies will mark a first step in closing the last frontier of the Cold War.

"We're excited," said a U.S. diplomat in Seoul. "There is a great opportunity to resolve the problems on the Korean Peninsula and bring true peace and prosperity."

The agenda for the meetings remains modest and vague. Trying to stagger out of famine and economic crisis, North Korea is looking for huge infusions of aid. South Korea has agreed to send 600,000 tons of fertilizer.

Hoping to defuse tensions and reconcile, South Korea wants to move toward reuniting families separated during the war and develop a dialogue that could eventually pave the way to reunification.

"We have good hopes for the summit, but nobody is quite sure of the future course," said Cho Baek Sang, director of the Inter-Korean Policy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "Half of the success is already guaranteed if it happens."

Among the South Koreans watching most closely will be many of the refugees who fled communism in the North before and during the Korean War (1950-1953). Cut off after the armistice, millions lost touch with the relatives they left behind. Pyongyang allowed a small reunion of 50 families in 1985, but nothing since.

Hong Kun Sik, 77, left seven brothers and sisters in the North. Like many members of separated families, he desperately misses his relatives and wonders whether any are still alive.

"I have been homesick for 50 years," says Hong, president of the Association of Lost Home Towns.

Many who fled from the North are old now and worry that they won't live long enough to see the two Koreas reconcile.

"I dream of the collapse of communism in the North," said Hong. "I am tired of waiting."

Most South Koreans, though, were born after war's end and have no ties to their neighbor north of the demilitarized zone, the world's most fortified border.

Young South Koreans tend to view the North as a worrisome curiosity and potential cash drain. One report here estimates that raising the North's economy up to 60 percent of the South's level could cost as much as $2 trillion.

"I wonder what kind of lives the North Koreans are living," said Choi, a South Korean woman, as she looked across the Imjin River recently, trying to make out North Korea through the mist.

The view from Unification Observatory, which overlooks the border, provides few clues. Through high-powered binoculars, visitors can glimpse what appear to be two-story, English-style country homes.

The peculiar sight is said to be part of a propaganda village the North Korean government has built in a vain attempt to convince the South that its economy is thriving despite the flood of starving refugees who have fled to China.

Both sides periodically blare music at each other across the muddy river, which empties into the Yellow Sea.

"I can't sleep sometimes," said Jun Tae Shik, 71, who farms near the observatory within sight of North Korea.

Lee, a manufacturing company employee in his 40s, stopped by the observatory one day recently while on business. He has no family in North Korea and doesn't expect reunification during his lifetime. The differences now are too great, he said.

"My only fear is that North Korea is forced into a situation they can't escape," said Lee, concerned that Pyongyang might lash out at the South before collapsing.

"If they don't have anything to lose by launching an attack on the South's forces, they will do it."

World leaders have shared that concern. North Korea's international image has been one of a paranoid, rogue state teetering on the brink of self-destruction, a sort of doomsday cult as nation-state.

At times, Pyongyang's behavior has reinforced the idea. The government has been accused of selling heroin and printing counterfeit U.S. $100 bills.

It is also suspected of ordering the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner with 115 people aboard with the goal of scaring people away from the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Despite the failure of its command economy, North Korea has sought to develop nuclear and chemical weapons. In 1998, it fired a rocket over the peninsula's former colonial master, Japan, sparking concern that Pyongyang was accelerating its missile program.

Some South Korean officials suggest that North Korea has used the threat of a military buildup as a bargaining chip to get desperately needed aid.

Kim Jong Il must know that a nuclear or chemical attack on the South and the U.S. troops stationed here would invite an annihilating retaliation from both Seoul and Washington.

In 1994, North Korea made a deal with the United States to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel oil and two nuclear reactors. Although some analysts remain skeptical, U.S. and South Korean officials say Pyongyang has abided by the agreement.

"If they thought having a nuclear weapon was the only way to have security, they would not give up the nuclear option," said a senior South Korean official.

"There is no reason to think North Korea is suicidal," said a U.S. diplomat here. "They make decisions based on their national interest."

Their national interest now seems to be survival and better relations with the outside world.

The surprise summit announcement in April follows a determined effort by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to reach out to Pyongyang. For years, Seoul had sought to destabilize the North in hopes that it would just fall apart.

Fearing potential war or a German-style reunification, President Kim has pursued a "Sunshine Policy," which focuses on reconciliation and building economic ties to encourage internal reforms. Overtures from the South have coincided with an unprecedented diplomatic offensive by the North.

After shunning most of the Western world for decades, Pyongyang established diplomatic ties this year with Australia and Italy. Last month, Kim Jong Il met with Chinese leaders in Beijing during what might have been his first trip abroad in 17 years. In the first visit by a Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin plans to travel to Pyongyang for talks next month.

"The hermit kingdom has become the hyperactive kingdom," Stanley Roth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said recently.

"It is way too early to say that North Korea has reformed, but I think certainly its diplomacy is changing. That seems to reflect a decision that it has to change for the country's well-being."

Among the most critical issues for North Korea at the summit will be the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South.

The United States and the Soviet Union carved up Korea after Japan's defeat in World War II. The North attacked in 1950 in an attempt to reunify, sparking the Korean War.

Almost 37,000 U.S. soldiers are thought to have died in the conflict. The dead and wounded also included 900,000 Chinese, 520,000 North Koreans and more than 200,000 South Koreans.

Pyongyang's request for the removal of U.S. soldiers is likely to go nowhere. Despite warmer relations, practically no one here trusts the unpredictable adversary across the 38th parallel.

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