All Together Now

Early in March, Kim Jong Il had a dress rehearsal for his coming-out party. North Korea's shadowy "Great Leader" dropped in at the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang and toasted stunned embassy staffers--he had brought his own wineglass--cracking jokes and making small talk. A hard-line Stalinist recluse who controls his rogue state so tightly that North Korea radios can receive only government broadcasts, Kim was only warming up. Last month he briefly visited Beijing. And then last week he hit the big time, playing the gracious host to South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, at a historic summit between two countries that technically are still at war.

With the precision of the Hollywood musicals he adores, Kim Jong Il choreographed the first meeting between two Korean leaders to remake his reputation as a recluse, fanatic and closet terrorist. He displayed previously undetected humility, poise and charm. Wearing his trademark zip-front Mao jacket, the 58-year-old dictator surprised President Kim by meeting his plane at Pyongyang airport. "Don't worry. I will give you the best treatment possible," Kim Jong Il told his startled guest during the limo ride into town. Warming to his host's rosy rhetoric, the South Korean Kim said "a new day" had dawned. Back home, he told South Koreans that "Pyongyang is our land" and its people "are our people."

But are they? And was Kim's charm offensive really intended to bring the two nations together? The leaders signed a joint statement calling for "national unification"--without specifying how that would be accomplished. It contained a vague promise of reunions for some of the 1.8 million families divided by the war and said North Korea's Kim would visit the South "at an appropriate time." All well and good, but nothing was said about formally ending the state of war or about the 37,000 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea. There was no mention of North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons or its sale of ballistic missiles overseas. Pyongyang's human-rights abuses were ignored, along with the collapse of its economy and the hunger that has stalked the land during six years of alternating drought and flood. Still, the dream of reunification remains strong, perhaps strong enough to overcome all the difficulties ahead. A thaw in the world's last cold-war standoff may be near.

No one thinks joining the two economies will be easy. True, South Korean companies have already started to invest in the North, and more will follow. And Kim Dae Jung wants to build 15 miles of track connecting the two countries' rail systems, opening a land route to Asia and Europe for South Korean exports--he called it a new "Silk Road" last week. But trying to blend North Korea's basket-case economy with a South Korean economy that is still recovering from the recent Asian financial crisis could be downright dangerous. "The worst thing that could happen is that they have a war," says a senior U.S. official. "The next worst thing is if North Korea wants to all of a sudden reunify with South Korea in its current condition." Combining the two economies could easily cost $100 billion to $500 billion, analysts say. That would be relatively more expensive than German reunification, itself a near disaster. West Germany's standard of living was about twice as high as East Germany's; South Korea's per capita income is nearly 100 times higher than North Korea's.

Neither country can afford to simply open the border between them. That would set off a cataclysmic flood of poor, hungry North Korean refugees into the South. Allowing even limited travel between the two countries could undermine North Korea's rigidly controlled society. The family reunions promised in last week's agreement probably won't have much impact on North Korea's isolation. Discussions between relatives will be monitored to steer them clear of politics or other sensitive subjects. South Koreans who participate in these stilted meetings will be the lucky ones; most of those who want reunions won't get them, officials in Seoul predict.

Culturally, the two Koreas have grown far apart in the past half century. South Koreans are prosperous and modern. Ordinary North Koreans are like insects in amber, cut off from the rest of the world, locked in poverty. People on both sides of the ceasefire line still speak the same language, but their vocabularies have diverged dramatically. On TV, southern soccer announcers use many Western terms, such as "goalkeeper" or "penalty kick." Northern announcers have invented their own Korean words for such terms, rendering their play-by-play almost incomprehensible to southerners.

Deep down, each side still believes it can't afford to trust the other. The North Koreans have broken promises before, often with violent consequences; last year, after declaring its peaceful intentions, Pyongyang sent warships south, provoking (and losing) a sea battle. But will Seoul be any more reliable than the North? Kim Dae Jung leaves office in 2003, and Pyongyang has no guarantee that its next interlocutor will be as friendly as the current one.

The meeting of the two Kims was encouraged by the United States and actively promoted by China. But the major powers in Asia are in no hurry to see Korean reunification. "It is in China's national interest to have a socialist buffer state," says James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to both South Korea and China. "The last thing China wants is a unified Korea with its capital in Seoul and 37,000 American troops hanging around on China's border." For the next few years at least, Washington and Beijing will be content to see Seoul send food and economic aid to the North. Even a little progress could be risky. "North Korea used to be a weak dog that barked a lot," says Japanese military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa. "If it gains physical power thanks to assistance [from the South], it may actually become a dog that bites."

But what if North Korea is no longer perceived as a biting dog? That's where U.S. and Chinese interests begin to diverge. The missile defense shield that Washington plans to build is meant to serve as protection against "rogue" states, such as North Korea. If Kim Jong Il manages to achieve respectability, Washington will have less of a pretext to build the missile shield, or to keep troops in South Korea, and China will have scored a couple of important points. Kim Jong Il has a long way to go before the world accepts him as a reliable statesman. But he'll have a chance to improve his standing another notch next month, when Russian President Vladimir Putin comes calling. Putin should be prepared for his host to turn on that newly famous North Korean charm.