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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007

'Silly summit' produced serious results

LOS ANGELES — It sure opened up as one big oddball of a summit.

For starters, the maximum leader of the northern half of the divided Korean Peninsula shows up on the first day in his trademark khaki casual suit that makes him look like some puffy Veterans of Foreign Wars figurine out of a 1950s department store catalog.

And then the leader from the bottom half of Korea steps onto the summit stage in Pyongyang looking as stiff and glazed as a celebrity waxwork from Madame Tussauds in London.

These are the pair of political peculiarities who now represent the communist North of Korea and the industrialized South, and it was they who just concluded what was but the second Korean summit since the Peninsula's division. So, Josef Stalin versus Franklin Roosevelt this was not; it was North Korean leader Kim Jong Il versus South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, which, for all appearances, at times looked more like Abbott versus Costello than anything else.

But meet they did, and agree they did. The growing reality on the Korean Peninsula is that before too long the very last remnant of the very long Cold War may start melting like a late April snow in Seoul.

North and South Korea not only met last week in an atmosphere of civility when it was not one of hilarity; they in effect agreed to make up for lost time and see if they cannot get the two Koreas moving forward in parallel rather than at cross-purposes.

Cross-border contacts — by plane, train or whatever — are to be greatly increased; new South Korean money will flow into the North, though not vice versa, as North Korea is effectively broke. And perhaps even the 1953 ceasefire that ended the vicious hostilities will give way to a formal peace treaty signed by the relevant parties.

If this in fact is to happen and what it would mean if it does actually happen is anyone's guess. But good things are always better than bad things, and the Korean Peninsula is right now moving toward something closer to a somewhat more brotherly (if still fragmented) place.

The reasons for the seeming change of direction are simple enough. The hard-nosed North Korean government not too many years ago secretly concluded that the socialist economic system that it inherited from the Soviet Union wasn't working. But knowing the truth and accepting it wholeheartedly and agreeing to do something about it seemed beyond the capacity of the lame North Korean government.

Against this enormous entropy of incompetence, the South's Kim Dae Jung and his "sunshine policy" came to the rescue, immediately after the former president's Blue House election in 1997. But until his efforts in trying to relate to the isolated North were spectacularly awarded with the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, Kim and his sunshine policy got no respect at all.

Especially from alleged close ally America: Until relatively recently, the Bush administration rained on the policy of sunshine toward the North at almost every opportunity. In March 2001 then-President Kim visited the White House to try to persuade the new American president of the wisdom of engaging the North. No dice: The Nobel Prize winner and Korean freedom fighter was all but given the cold shoulder and shown the door back to the airport.

Thankfully, American "blockheadedness" could not endure forever. Everyone from long-standing close allies to fair-weather friends explained that if the U.S. was not going to invade North Korea (and it wasn't, not with Iraq such a mess and Iran such a looming uncertainty), it was going to have to talk to the leaders of the North. It wasn't a matter of liking these communist autocrats, it was a question of getting overall tension with the North Koreans off the crisis radar screen and into a less unpredictable and dangerous mode.

The Chinese helped break the ice by erecting in 2003 the six-party talks on the Korean question, a semi-imaginative structure that at least had the initial virtue of putting seasoned diplomats from North and South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the U.S. in the same room in Beijing. But it wasn't until U.S. and North Korean negotiators got together, at first secretly, in Geneva earlier this year that the melting ice became a trickle of a stream that some day might swell into a river of Korean reconciliation.

Already the North Koreans have surprised the world by apparently agreeing to end their entire nuclear-weapons program and tear down their nuclear facilities in return for economic aid and diplomatic normalization. So many skeptics said it couldn't be done. And of course it isn't yet done — but the government in Pyongyang has been consistently saying that nuclear disarmament shall indeed be a done deal before this year is out.

Some American liberals are privately ambivalent about this course of developments, because it gives the impression of a Bush administration diplomatic triumph. But I say let the president and his people take as much credit as they want if the reality is that we are soon to have a measure of peace on this long-troubled peninsula.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, also the author of his new book "Confessions of an American Journalist." Copyright Tom Plate 2007

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