A Turning Point?

The shoppers who lined up outside Seoul's TechnoMart last week weren't looking for bargains. They waited in long queues for the chance to wear masks depicting the two Kims--North Korea's frizzy-haired dictator, Kim Jong Il, and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The electronics store produced the cartoon likenesses so customers could pre-enact the historic handshake the two Korean leaders will make in Pyongyang this week. The publicity stunt was just one outbreak in a summit fever that has gripped South Korea. Two Kims coffee mugs have appeared in department stores, and the Pyongyang Circus is wowing sellout crowds in Seoul. When Kim Jung Hwa, a 19-year-old sophomore at Seoul Arts College, released renditions of Northern pop tunes on her debut CD on June 1, she sold 50,000 copies in a week. The title: "Unification Girl."

It's easy to get excited about this week's Pyongyang summit. Nearly 50 years ago to the day, communist armies blitzed southward across the 38th parallel, triggering an all-out war whose reverberations are still being felt (following stories). This week Kim Dae Jung will cross the world's most heavily defended border to engage Kim Jong Il on the reclusive strongman's own turf. Following a still-secret agenda, the two leaders are expected to sign agreements to reunite war-divided families, boost South-to-North food aid and investment and reduce tension along the 250-kilometer-long demilitarized zone. Both men will likely avoid divisive issues like Pyongyang's missile program and the presence of U.S. combat troops in the South. Still, President Kim, briefing U.S. President Bill Clinton last week, said he hoped to reach "a turning point" in Pyongyang that "could truly be described as historic." No one expects the two Kims to solve all their disagreements, but President Kim might coax his host to make a trip to Seoul. That would truly be a breakthrough, for Kim Jong Il is a notoriously reluctant statesman, and traveling south to the land his father couldn't conquer would take courage. Chances are, he'll decline the invitation. But if he accepts, South Koreans would surely line up to catch a glimpse.