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North, South Korean Dialogue Stalled, 2 Years After Historic Visit - 2002-06-15

Two years after South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il shook hands and signed a historic accord, the dialogue between the rival nations has stalled. The summit appears to have reduced bilateral tensions but has fallen short of many South Koreans' hopes.

June 15 marks the second anniversary of the historic summit between North and South Korea, when the two nations signed a joint declaration. President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il pledged to move toward ending conflict on the Korean peninsula and to work for eventual reunification.

The two nations, divided since 1945, have remained technically at war since 1953 when the Korean War ended without a peace treaty. Since then, the South has become an economic powerhouse with a democratic government. The communist-run North has become one of the world's poorest nations, with an isolated, repressive government.

The summit cleared the way for exchanges such as reunions of separated family members and plans to reconnect a cross-border railroad.

While a series of brief family reunions have taken place, few of the summit's larger aims have been achieved. South Korean President Kim, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for arranging the summit, recently told his cabinet that he regrets that the two nations are not moving forward.

On the streets of Seoul, some people express disappointment in the lack of progress. One man said that the contacts between the two nations are superficial and that something deeper is needed.

Another man said that unless the relationship evolves, it may not be worth pursuing.

Exchanges have been frozen since last year, partly due to tensions between North Korea and the United States, Seoul's closest ally. When President Bush took office in January 2001, he announced he would re-examine ties with North Korea. Since then, he has offered to restart a dialogue, but Pyongyang has not yet agreed.

In April, a South Korean envoy went to Pyongyang in a bid to reopen exchanges. But soon after, North Korea again hardened its stance, and accused South Korea's foreign minister of supporting Washington's hardline policy toward the North's government.

Despite the setbacks, some analysts have that there has been subtle and meaningful advancement. Im Hyug-baeg is a political science professor at Korea University. He said that while the June 15 joint declaration has not really gone into effect, tensions have disappeared and the two sides have maintained a peaceful co-existence.

Analysts have said that Kim Dae-jung, now in the last year of his presidency, wants more. The president, whose term ends in February, has made his so-called Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea the cornerstone of his government.

South Korean Unification Minister Jeon Se-hyun on Friday urged North Korea to reopen talks. In a letter to Pyongyang, he said that both sides must hold a round of economic talks that were postponed last month.

Seoul also faces a growing flow of North Korean refugees. About 1,000 North Koreans have taken refuge in the South since the June 2000 summit. Human rights workers estimate as many as 300,000 North Koreans are hiding in China and waiting for a chance to flee.

Some government critics say Seoul needs to be more vocal about human rights in the North, where years of economic mismanagement have caused a famine. The North's citizens have few rights, and those who show a lack of devotion to the totalitarian government are severely punished.

An editorial Wednesday in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said the primary aim of South Korea's engagement policy must be improving the atrocious situation in the North. The paper adds that will never happen by keeping quiet to please Pyongyang.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for President Kim's North Korea policy is a lack of popular support. In local elections held Thursday, his Millennium Democratic Party put in a poor showing, winning only five of 16 major posts.

Seong-Ho Lim is a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. "In my view, the Korean public has some suspicions about North Korea and I think Korean people are more conservative-leaning as far as the reunification issue goes. Unless the public mind is changed more rapidly, I think the reunification issue will not significantly progress," he said.

One promising sign for inter-Korean relations is that the U.S. envoy to North Korea, Jack Pritchard, met officials from the Stalinist state Friday in New York to discuss resuming talks. In addition, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Thursday that the United States hopes to send a delegation to Pyongyang soon.