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The 2 Kims and the 2 Koreas And Why They Will Meet

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

SEOUL - The immediate question surrounding the surprise agreement for a June summit between the two Kims of the two Koreas is what bearing it will have on the National Assembly elections in the South on Thursday. More significant, however, are the questions it raises about the latest goals and tactics of the North.

There never was any question that the South's president, Kim Dae Jung, was prepared to go to some lengths to get a summit, though as yet we know nothing of any conditions or agenda. He needs to show some apparent results from the ''sunshine'' policy towards the North. There is little real opposition to the policy if only because there is scant alternative.

Debate centers more around the cost of the carrots to be offered to lure Pyongyang to what the South hopes is an ultimately self-destructive opening to the real world. With the economic crisis now receding into history, Kim Dae Jung was seen in danger of becoming a lame duck less than halfway through his term if he could not make progress with the North. He also hankers after a Nobel Peace Prize and a name in the history books, so he has to take risks.

The summit announcement will have limited impact on the election, which is dominated by domestic issues, regionalism, corruption allegations and personalities. Though some may react against Mr. Kim's party if they perceive the summit announcement as an electoral gimmick, the opposition fears it could swing several marginal seats in his favor.

The timing might suggest that Kim Jong Il wants to give his opposite number an electoral boost because the North needs ''sunshine'' to provide money and as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the United States and Japan. Even if it is of no actual electoral value, the North's leader will want to infer that Kim Dae Jung owes him a favor. The North is now a real factor in South politics.

More fundamentally, the summit breakthrough suggests that Pyongyang has changed tacks in its triangular dealings with the United States, Japan and Seoul. Until now it has concentrated its hopes on improving relations with the United States and Japan and ignored the South. It needs U.S. recognition and Japanese money.

But talks with Washington following William Perry's Pyongyang trip have bogged down, mainly on the issue of missile sales. Likewise, Japan is still smarting from missile tests across its bows and is reluctant to be as generous as Pyongyang wants.

So Kim Jong Il now sees the South as a better prospect for raising cash and an escape from its over-expectations from its dialogue with Washington.

Kim Jong Il probably exaggerates the South's willingness to spend money on the North especially now that the government has deficits and the chaebol cannot count on reciprocal favors if they do what the president wants. Nonetheless, if anyone has any incentive to spend money on the North, it is a South that retains some brotherly feelings and respect for the power of money.

The summit may well end up as a photogenic gesture that has short-term political benefits for both leaders but makes no progress on substantive issues. The North is sure to get some cash benefits. Where it leaves Kim Dae Jung is another matter. He will need to show that this leads to benefits for all Koreans.

What does the summit say about domestic politics in the North? It certainly gives Kim Jong Il a higher profile, suggests that he is in charge and prepared to take a risk. If there were opposition, he could claim that he was just following in the giant footsteps of his father, who died 1n 1994 days before he was due to meet South Korea's president, Kim Young Sam. He will have been under pressure from China to be conciliatory. Meanwhile, Kim Dae Jung has been conspicuously silent about the election of fellow democrat and one-time dissident Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan.

Recent signals from Pyongyang have been mixed. Foreign aid agencies are leaving because of their inability to provide to those really in need. Potential big investors such as Hyundai have been treated as sources of quick cash. The food situation has improved a little but is still abysmal. On the other hand, Pyongyang diplomacy has been building new links with Europe, starting with full relations with Italy, and there are some slight signs of domestic change.

There is no reason to expect much out of the summit. But Korea is full of unreason, and surprises. Maybe, just maybe, Kim Il Sung and the military realize that their situation is untenable and that a big deal with the South is their only chance of survival.

Meanwhile, any opening to the South, whether to Kim Dae Jung or a few tourists, is one little step towards the day when North Koreans realize how they have been oppressed. The only losers from a summit, other than the South's taxpayers and opposition politicians, are those who fear eventual Korean reunification.