Koreas Sidestep U.S. to Forge Political and Pragmatic Links
NCHON, South Korea, June 24 ? Wielding wrenches on a rainy morning, South Korean marines methodically dismantled a wall of 48 olive-green loudspeakers that only days earlier had been blaring news and pop music to sentries and rice farmers working on the North Korean bank of the Han River.
On Saturday, the marines will start removing a 20-foot computer-controlled sign board that blinked news flashes across the demilitarized zone.
After half a century of cross-border propaganda, all is now quiet on South Korea's northern front. By Aug. 15, the hundreds of propaganda signs and loudspeakers are to be entirely removed from both sides of the inter-Korean border.
The Koreas are entering more than a summer of détente. Quietly ignoring Bush administration efforts to isolate North Korea, South Korea has become North Korea's largest source of aid, trade and tourism. It is also North Korea's most consistent diplomatic advocate.
Even though the two Koreas are still technically at war, their athletes will march again under one "Unification" flag at the Athens Olympics in August.
While older people and conservative politicians get nervous each time the United States announces a troop withdrawal, as it did earlier this month, younger South Koreans typically cheer. To them, and increasingly to the more liberal members of the South Korean government, North Korea is no longer seen as a military threat.
The conciliatory stance causes uneasiness ? and confusion ? in Washington, where the White House tries to keep a united front with South Korea and Japan to induce North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program.
The latest round of talks, which also include China and Russia, are to end Saturday in Beijing.
"You could call it engagement, you could call it neutrality," said Victor D. Cha, a Washington-based Korea specialist visiting Seoul this week. "We don't know what South Korea's grand design is."
Outside the peninsula, North Korea is a pariah, a Stalinist dictatorship that runs a string of harsh labor camps, and that allowed one million people to starve to death in the 1990's rather than accept foreign aid. Its missiles and artillery have long threatened rapid annihilation of Seoul, a megalopolis that holds nearly half the nation's 48 million people.
But in South Korea, where years of confrontation with North Korea have yielded little progress toward greater security, a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy took root five years ago under the previous president, Kim Dae Jung. Mr. Kim's "sunshine policy" was devoted both to avoiding a second Korean war and to diminishing the huge social and economic gap between the neighbors.
Today, South Korea's central bank is the best source of statistics on North Korea's economy. South Korea's Agriculture Ministry is drawing up plans to revive North Korea's failed farm sector. Other ministries are working to rehabilitate the North's electric power system and railroads.
On the information front, South Korea's Unification Ministry is planning to start broadcasting North Korean news programs next month on the ministry's Web site. Backed by Seoul's new, liberal-controlled Parliament, Unification Minister Chung Se Hyun said Thursday that he might allow southerners to travel in July to the capital, Pyongyang, for the 10th anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder.
"South Koreans have gone the full circle," said C. Kenneth Quinones, director of the Korea Peninsula Program at International Action, a Washington research group. "Ten years ago, anyone who went north was painted pink. Today, anyone who does not go north is not a real Korean."
For years, under a military dictatorship and the conservative government that succeeded it, contacts with the North were seen as virtually treasonous, despite the longing of many ordinary Koreans who had relatives and ties in the north. A new generation of South Koreans also came of age with no memories of the horrors of the Korean War.
To avoid offending North Korea, government officials rarely remind the public about the military threat from the North, so younger South Koreans come up with their own theories about the military alliance with the United States. Many believe the United States and Japan simply want to keep the Koreas divided.
In "The Third Scenario," a novel by Kim Jin Myung, the United States centralizes its Asian military command in Japan, concentrates troops on Guam, then provokes a full-scale war between the two Koreas. The goals are to keep Korea weak and to increase sales for American weapons manufacturers. In the three weeks since the book went on sale, it has sold 1.6 million copies.
"They have gotten themselves in a position where defending the alliance will offend the North Koreans," Mr. Cha, a Georgetown University professor, said of Seoul's silence.
Whatever South Korea's designs, they do not include unification, at least not anytime soon. Instead, South Korea wants to nudge North Korea down the road toward a free market and economic development, postponing the day when a Germany-size reunification bill will come due.
With efforts to destabilize the North completely out of fashion, relations are steadily improving. Bilateral trade, for instance, soared to $724 million last year, from $400 million in 2000.
Starting this summer, North and South Korean ships plan to trade directly for the first time, as each country opens seven ports to ships from the other. In the fall, a South Korean-run industrial park is to open with 15 factories in Kaesong, about 15 miles north of the border.
On the eastern side of Korea, day trips are to start July 3 across the demilitarized zone to Mount Kumgang, a North Korean tourists' enclave. Expecting a flood of tourists, Hyundai Asan, the tour operator, is devising "smart cards" to speed tourists through border controls.
Since Mount Kumgang opened to foreign visitors in 1999, nearly 700,000 South Koreans have made the tour. Critics call Mount Kumgang a Potemkin village, where North Korea collects $100 from each visitor and minimizes contacts between citizens of the two countries.
But even outside this enclave, 15,280 South Koreans visited North Korea last year, double the number in 2000. North Korea allowed only 1,023 citizens to visit South Korea last year, but that also doubled the level of 2000.
Mindful of the staggering cost of unifying the two Germanys, South Korea has made North Korea its primary recipient of foreign aid.
"When a rich brother goes to visit a poorer brother, the rich brother should not go empty-handed," Mr. Kim, the former president, told The Financial Times last week when asked why Seoul surreptitiously paid $100 million to facilitate the summit meeting. "We wanted to provide $100 million of support. But there was no legal way to do it."
Most aid appears to be in the open.
Last week, for example, a South Korean charity group opened a 100-bed children's hospital in Pyongyang. The group, which brought 11 South Korean children to the opening, is also building a dairy plant in Pyongyang.
This relaxed atmosphere reassures foreign investors and keeps South Korean flight capital at a low level.
"There is no fear here ? that is the striking change," Selig S. Harrison, an American academic who has been visiting the Koreas for decades, said in Seoul on Wednesday.
At the Jaejok Peak border post, it is hard to quantify the impact the loudspeakers and sign boards had on the northern side of the Han River. Over the last five years, the only known defector in this region was a North Korean Army officer who floated across the river in a raft made of empty plastic jugs.
As the soldiers unbolted the loudspeakers, a visitor peering through field binoculars could only imagine what impact the information effort had had on the minds of seven farmers who could be seen, dressed in black and toiling in a field, cut off from the world by more than coils of rusty barbed wire on the crest of a muddy riverbank.
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