Fifty years after North Korean troops stormed across the 38th parallel into South Korea, the Korean war may finally be ending.
It all depends on the real intentions of the world's most peculiar leader, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, who recently hosted the first-ever summit between the leaders of North and South Korea. But things are looking unexpectedly promising.
True, it's hard to penetrate the thinking of a man who maintains the last diehard communist state. North Korea has been kept sealed off from the rest of the world, its failed economy unreformed and kept afloat by military sales and international aid. The population starves while the numbers under arms, and the share of the budget that pays for those arms, outstrip any other country.
Fifty years on, the north has never signed a peace treaty with the south, only an armistice agreement. North Korea has nukes and a long-range missile program, and keeps thousands of short-range rockets within firing distance of South Korea's capital. Thirty-seven thousand U.S. troops are stationed in the south to discourage the north from attacking across the border.
On my one visit to that border at Panmunjom a decade ago, I viewed North Korea's strangeness up close. The North Korean military blasted loud music nonstop from their side of the border in order to disorient the soldiers on the southern side.
When I crossed the armistice line, with a group of South Korean journalists who were permitted to exchange a few pleasantries with their northern counterparts, the North Koreans lined up in front of me and screamed propaganda slogans. On their shirts, they all wore buttons with the face of Kim Il Sung (the late dictator father of Kim Jong Il).
But slogans can't feed a nation. Skeptics think that Kim Jong Il may have engineered the summit, and the warm reception for Kim Dae Jung, as a ploy to extract lots of economic aid from the south. Pyongyang has been masterful at extracting economic payoffs from its neighbors and the West in return for promising to halt bad behavior, like building nuclear weapons, and testing or exporting missiles.
But there are three good reasons this extortion game may have reached its limit.
The first reason: In the words of Korea expert Marcus Noland, "Extortion has its limits as an economic development model." North Korea's economic model was failing so badly that it had to look for another Chinese market socialism, which it had previously rejected. But to imitate China, North Korea must open up to the outside world.
The second reason: Kim may have realized no one really wants his country to collapse and be swallowed up by South Korea. Neither the Japanese nor the South Koreans see economic reforms as a Trojan horse by which to end Kim Jong Il's fiefdom. On the Korean peninsula, the German model of unification does not apply.
The South Koreans, still reeling from the Asian crisis, cannot afford to absorb a bankrupt nation light years behind East Germany in development. Neither Japan nor China wants a North Korean collapse, either. Both fear refugee flows, and neither wants a new, unified nuclear state as its neighbor.
The third reason: both North Korea's friends and foes alike have tired of the extortion game. The hermit kingdom's recent bursts of bad military behavior, especially its 1998 missile test over Japan, seriously backfired.
Neighbor Japan was so shocked that it suspended aid to North Korea and grew interested in U.S. plans for a regional, or theater, missile defense system.Pyongyang's closest friend, China, was angered because it fears that such a regional missile defense system could block its plans to recover Taiwan. So North Korea's friends, neighbors and foes now have a common cause in finding ways to lock Pyongyang into a less aggressive mode. China was a key player in engineering the summit.
"North Korea can't afford to be bellicose," says Noland. "The Chinese would go nuts. They've been the big losers as Japan talks about supporting theater defenses." And, as North Korea gets more enmeshed with South Korea, through more trade, aid and investment, it will have more to lose by angering the south.
This all presumes that Kim Jong Il behaves rationally. And that he is willing to gamble on more openness which could turn his own people against him. His real intentions will only be revealed over time.