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Wednesday, May 8, 2002

World Cup could be a step toward peace on peninsula


LOS ANGELES -- Peace on the strategically vital Korean Peninsula still has a long way to go, but we may be getting there, step by halting step.

Step one is positive input from the Bush administration. Praise to the White House for ditching its nasty "thunder and lightning policy" toward North Korea, as it announced acceptance of Pyongyang's offer to resume official talks.

In fairness to Washington, you don't have to be a parochial American who rarely travels beyond his ranch to despise a regime whose communist-cockeyed policies have led to malnutrition and starvation and whose idea of diplomacy is to hide behind a rock, show the muzzle of a gun and shout stupid slogans.

Kim Dae Jung must leave office next year, but in more than four years as South Korea's second nonmilitary president, he has gotten precious little in return from Pyongyang. Maybe his "sunshine policy," which helped garner him a Nobel Peace prize, is starting to warm North Korea just a little. The clouds parted -- at least a little -- as hundreds of North and South Korean families have been meeting at a North Korean tourist site for long-delayed reunions.

Those tearful reunions played big-time in the South Korean media, burnishing the fraying image of Kim. Until then, the former political prisoner of Korean military regimes was known, and derided, for his dismissive style, parochial dialect and ineffectiveness with North Korea. Perhaps Korean public opinion will begin to put his flaws into more favorable perspective as Kim heads into the home stretch of his presidency, riding the excitement as cohost of the 2002 World Cup in both Japan and South Korea.

These two nations and cultures have been at odds for decades, not least because of Japan's occupation of the Peninsula, as well as its reluctance to own up to the brutality of that 35-year-long nightmare. To be sure, Japan has its own issues with Korea -- especially with the North. Tokyo wants answers to questions on the whereabouts of Japanese citizens suspected of being kidnapped long ago by Pyongyang agents. Suddenly Japan's pleas are no longer being ignored: The Red Cross of Japan and North Korea now say they will try to find out.

Historic rifts can eventually die. Japanese investment in South Korea, whose economy is predicted to grow 4-6 percent, perhaps second this year in Asia only to China's, is on the upswing. Tourism between the two countries is skyrocketing. And the two are cooperating closely -- and so far effectively -- as cohosts of the 2002 World Cup, which for many Asians is the equivalent of three U.S. Super Bowls with a March Madness or two thrown in for frenzy.

Should a serious Japanese-Korean modus vivendi emerge from this cooperation and investment, the implications for Asia -- and America -- would be staggering. U.S. fears of a giant China lording over the region could ease, allowing Washington to notch down the rhetoric -- and even trim costly U.S. troop deployments.

The prospect of a considerably closer Japan-South Korea relationship may be as improbable as it is desirable. Yes, it will require far more than a world-class soccer extravaganza to take it to the next level. It would certainly benefit from spectacular joint Korean-Japanese statesmanship. Alas, the prospect of Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi going to Pyongyang together today seems more inconceivable than a visit to China by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once did.

The recent family reunions took the Korean Peninsula only part way. To go the full distance, dramatic diplomacy is needed. A Nixon-to-China trip to Pyongyang for Koizumi and Kim -- the leaders of modern Japan and Korea is the stuff of which peace can be made.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.


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