Talk of Third Inter-Korean Summit Emerges Despite Clear Agenda
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Although there has not been any definitive moves, talk of a third inter-Korean summit reemerged last week when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak raised the possibility of such a meeting within the year. The issue surfaced after Lee told British public broadcaster BBC that he is willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il anytime and even this year.
The Jan. 29 interview with Lee took place in Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending the two-day World Economic Forum. Lee said he could meet Kim later this year if conditions were right, but that he did not want to "place any definitive time" on a summit. He demanded that there should be no preconditions for the meeting, adding that such a summit could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and resolve the nuclear standoff with the North.
President Lee's remarks about the potential summit came as the North fired a barrage of artillery shells for three consecutive days in what it said were military exercises near the West Sea border with the South.
The proposed inter-Korean summit would be the third such after earlier meetings between leaders of the two Koreas in 2000 and 2007 and would be aimed at luring the North back to the multilateral nuclear talks and thawing inter-Korean ties. Relations between North and South Korea chilled after the 2008 inauguration of the conservative South Korean president and the North's missile tests and second nuclear detonation last year.
A senior presidential official noted Lee's comments only reaffirm his basic position that he is ready to have a meeting with Kim whenever all conditions for the talks have been met. But Seoul's latest show of flexibility has raised hopes for an inter-Korean summit despite lingering differences over the agenda.
South and North Korea have reportedly been engaged in a tug of war since October last year over the content of a possible summit agreement regarding Pyongyang's nuclear programs, South Korean prisoners of war and abductees held in the North, as well as Seoul's food and fertilizer aid, according to sources. The sides failed to narrow differences in their last meeting in mid-November.
Since his inauguration in 2008, Lee has insisted that Seoul will not seek a summit if it requires compromising his "principled" position, which prioritizes the North's denuclearization and emphasizes Pyongyang's reciprocal action for Seoul's assistance. In a televised town hall meeting on Nov. 27, he made public two conditions for the summit. He said the meeting will be possible only if the North shows its willingness to deal with its nuclear disarmament, and repatriation of war prisoners and abducted civilians.
In the interview in Davos last week, the president did not mention the sensitive issues. He only demanded "a fruitful and sufficient discussion on the North Korean nuclear issue. "There should be no preconditions for an open-minded meeting for reconciliation and cooperation," he added. The comment could be seen as an indication that Seoul will focus on the nuclear arsenal and not attach demands for an agreement on repatriation as a precondition.
President Lee made the point again, demanding that the North should consider his "grand bargain" proposal involving Pyongyang's denuclearization in exchange for massive aid and security guarantees by the international community. In an interview with CNN aired Jan. 30, he said his initiative is gathering consensus among other members of the six-party talks. "The time is approaching for North Korea to answer the question of whether it is ultimately going to drop its nuclear programs or not," he said.
Sources said the North Korean leader expressed his hopes for a summit when his emissaries met Lee in Seoul in August and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met Kim in Pyongyang in October.
Reports also say there was a secret meeting between the two Koreas in Singapore during that month. Yim Tae-hee, South Korea's labor minister, and Kim Yang-gon, director of the United Front Department of North Korea's Workers' Party, tentatively agreed to a draft summit accord in which the North would speak about its return to the six-party talks, the South would promise to provide 100,000 tons of rice and the North would allow one POW and one abductee to visit the South.
South Korean delegates did not insist on a return visit by Kim Jong-il to Seoul. The previous two summit meetings in 2000 and 2007 were held in Pyongyang and Kim himself promised in 2000 to hold the next summit in Seoul.
In November, the South raised the stakes, demanding the North send back a number of POWs and abductees and informed it that food aid should not necessarily be on the summit agenda but be linked to progress in overall relations. During negotiations between the two sides last November, Seoul demanded that a summit statement include a clear expression of the North's willingness to give up its nuclear programs, while the North insisted on the more vague "progress in the nuclear issue," sources said.
After failing to close their differences, the North intensified its criticism of Seoul's Unification Ministry while Lee stated that he would not hold a summit simply for its own sake.
Lee's turnabout last week indicated that some progress may have been made between the two sides, despite continued denial by his aides. But the North has still refused to return to the six-nation denuclearization talks since it walked out of them last year to protest tougher U.N. sanctions against its long-range missile launches and its second nuclear test. The North has been urged to come back to the six-party process and make good on its commitment to complete, verifiable and irrevocable denuclearization.
Experts expect the summit may take place in March or April at the earliest, or between June and September at the latest. Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said he expects the six-party talks to be resumed in February and crucial international nuclear meetings are scheduled for April and May in Washington.
Apparently conscious of South Korean conservatives opposition to the inter-Korean summit, President Lee Myung-bak on Feb. 2 made it clear that Seoul will not reward Pyongyang for agreeing to an inter-Korean summit. "The leaders of the two Koreas should meet under a premise that there can be no reward for a summit," the president said during a Cabinet meeting.
Sources said Pyongyang asked for rice and fertilizer aid during negotiations late last year. The former Kim Dae-jung administration secretly offered a huge amount of cash to the North around the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. His successor Roh Moo-hyun promised massive economic assistant when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2007.
Lee has criticized his predecessors for "buying" their summits, which they exploited for domestic political gains. He suspected a bulk of Seoul's assistance may have been channeled into the North's military and weapons programs, rather than feeding its populace. "The South-North summit can be pushed under a firm principle (of no reward). Unless the principle holds true, a summit is impossible," he said.
The Lee administration pledged to turn inter-Korean ties into a normal diplomatic relationship, breaking with the past practice of Seoul's unilateral assistance without the North reciprocating.
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said Feb. 2 that if a summit takes place, the North Korean nuclear weapons program should be the principal agenda item. "It is desirable that practical progress in the North Korean nuclear issue should be made (during the summit)," Hyun said in a press conference.
In Washington on Feb. 1, the U.S. expressed support for President Lee's plan to meet with Kim Jong-il over the nuclear dismantlement. "We have had our own discussions with North Korean officials," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
"We understand our partners in the six-party process likewise have had conversations, and we encourage dialogue." Crowley was responding to Lee's announcement that he is ready to meet with Kim this year to help resolve the North Korean nuclear impasse and other issues.
Crowley echoed Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. "We strongly support President Lee and the very clear path he set forward about what is necessary to achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Steinberg said last week. "I am confident whatever form of engagement the South Korean government achieves, we will do this through close cooperation."
Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, visited Pyongyang in December in the first high-level contact during the Obama administration, but failed to secure a commitment from the North to come back to the six-party talks. Pyongyang demands the sanctions be lifted and a peace treaty be signed to replace the armistice that ended the three-year Korean War in 1953 before it returns to the table.
On Feb. 3, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said denuclearization has to be an important topic of any future summit between the leaders of South and North Korea, a subject rarely discussed between the divided states outside of six-nation nuclear negotiations. The government's basic position is that we can hold a South-North summit at any time as long as it is in line with our principles and will help solve the North Korean nuclear issue," the minister said in an interview with local cable news network YTN.