Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Light Emerging in North, South Korea Ties

Last month, in a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Kim Jong Il showed up wearing a Mao jacket, befitting of the leader of an economy being ground to dust under Maoist rules. But if clothes make the man, note that Jiang wore a Western business suit, befitting the reformist leader of a country that's modernizing. Jiang's mission was to get North Korea to change its economic clothes. Judging from the agreement signed between North and South Korea, he may have done that.

The full story behind the South-North Joint Declaration goes back to 1994, a year that set in motion events that culminated in Pyongyang in the form of the sweeping Korean agreement. In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea to urge its leaders to enter into nuclear disarmament negotiations. Months later, diplomat Robert Galucci accepted the task of constructing a diplomatically complicated, politically controversial agreement that offered North Korea the promise of peaceful nuclear reactors in return for dismantling its nuclear capability. Galucci in effect tied North and South Korea in a seminal negotiating process.

In the South, Kim Young Sam, the first democratically elected Korean president, stumbled in negotiations with the North but achieved something essential to the process. His presidency succeeded in closing the door on whatever governing aspirations the South Korean military elite retained.

Then there was U.S. President Bill Clinton, who in 1996 nearly committed a diplomatic blunder. His staff planned a trip to Asia that excluded a stopover in South Korea. The South Korean foreign minister persuaded Secretary of State Warren Christopher that Clinton's itinerary would be interpreted in Pyongyang as a lessening of U.S. commitment to South Korea. Clinton then visited South Korea briefly and focused on the complex issues there. U.S. diplomacy was re-energized. In Washington, Charles Kartman, the State Department Korea coordinator, conducted meetings with the North Koreans, many of them secret. In New York, Stephen Bosworth, then head of the multi-nation Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization that was to build the North Korean reactors, engaged the North in construction and engineering details, in effect inculcating a rational negotiating process.

In the fall of 1997, there came an astonishing political development in South Korea. The people there chose as president, in their second presidential election, the oft-exiled, once-imprisoned opposition leader. In an interview before taking office in 1998, Kim Dae Jung said he was prepared to go to the North for a summit at any time, without preconditions. Kim was to prove the man of destiny that Asia and Korea needed.

Yet North Korea, many of its people without adequate food or starving, still possessed a 1.2-million-man war machine. In early 1999, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen conducted a six-day diplomatic trip to calm down the hawks in South Korea andJapan. To calm down U.S. hawks, Clinton tapped Cohen's predecessor, William Perry, to thoroughly review U.S. policy. The Perry report gave birth to the U.S. counterpart to Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North.

One other big piece needed to fall into place. Almost everyone was trying to bring North Korea to its senses before its policies brought it to its knees. But not China. It was acting almost as if North Korea didn't exist. It bolted out of its shell, however, when North Korea test-fired a missile with a trajectory that took it over Japan. Tokyo declared a new interest in a regional missile defense system. The prospect of such a system infuriated and alarmed Beijing, and suddenly was born a vigorous Chinese diplomatic effort to knock sense into Pyongyang. Evidently, that plain speaking did a world of good.

It is not certain that a permanent Korean peace is at hand. After all, there was the North's Kim in his Mao jacket as he signed documents with the South's Kim in his business suit. But because the leading powers of the Asia-Pacific region have worked together in this diplomatic effort since 1994, permanent peace is a probability. It bodes to become nothing less than a diplomatic benchmark in the annals of world diplomacy and one of Asia's greatest turning points.

Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.