Two halves of Korea cement ties

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun made history Oct. 2 when he walked across the Military Demarcation Line, which separates North and South Korea, and became the first ever head of state to do so. He traveled to the North to meet with his counterpart, Kim Jong Il, on Oct. 3-4.

The MDL is in the Demilitarized Zone, a no man’s land set up between the North and South with the signing of the armistice that ended full-scale fighting of the Korean War. It remains one of the most highly militarized areas on earth.

This was only the second time in history that the top leaders of the two halves of Korea have met. The first time, in 2000, led to a thaw in North-South relations and the beginnings of economic engagement. At that time, the South was headed by Kim Dae-jung. This month’s summit built on the work of the first.

The two most important areas of agreement were on peace and economic issues. Both North and South agreed to work together, with other nations involved in the Korean War, to replace the armistice with an official peace treaty.

Korea’s West Sea has been an extremely volatile area and has often been the site of skirmishes between the militaries of both sides, sometimes precipitated by fishing boat incidents. The cause of the fighting has been a disagreement over the North-South maritime border. The meeting’s outcome statement announced that a “special area for peace and cooperation in the West Sea” would be set up

Both sides also agreed to work towards reunification and respect each other, regardless of differing ideologies and systems, as well as to not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.

South Korea’s reunification ministry stopped using the words “reform and openness” in referring to its aims in the Kaesong special trade area in the North. The North dislikes the terms, seeing them as a coded way of calling for the dismantling of the North’s socialist system.

“We have to respect our counterparts in running the joint industrial project successfully,” a South Korean official told the Korea Times.

The two sides agreed “not to antagonize each other,” opposed any war on the peninsula, and said that all disputes would be settled amicably. The statement, signed by Kim Jong Il as chairman of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Defense Commission, and President Roh, further said that each state would encourage its institutions to promote reunification efforts.

A number of economic agreements were made as well. While there are fears that the progressive leadership of the South could be ousted in the upcoming elections, for issues not related to North-South tensions, it is generally believed that further cementing economic ties will make a reversal in political ties far less likely, no matter who rules South Korea.

The West Sea zone would include “setting waters for joint fishing and those for peace, construction of a special economic zone, active use of Haeju Port, direct passage of civilian vessels through Haeju Port and joint use of the estuary of the River Rimjin.”

The South also agreed to further its investment in Kaesong, as well as work to build more roadways and upgrade railways. In a symbolic gesture, people from both sides of Korea will travel to Beijing on the newly upgraded rail system to cheer on the united Korean team at the Olympic Games. Other special economic cooperation zones were also to be set up for shipbuilding, agriculture and other areas.

The talks took place at a time when threats on the peninsula have been decreasing, and the United States and North Korea have also begun holding direct talks on officially declaring an end to the Korean War.

dmargolis @pww.org