S. Koreans Divided Over North-South Summit

By Joohee Cho
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 9, 2007

SEOUL, Aug. 9 -- South Korean negotiators prepared Wednesday for the first North-South summit in seven years, while opposition groups in Seoul criticized the surprise meeting as a ploy to shore up President Roh Moo Hyun's sagging popularity.

Officials from the two sides will meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesong soon to conclude arrangements for the Aug. 28-30 talks between Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, the North's capital, the two governments announced.

The South Korean government had recently denied speculation that a summit was imminent. But Roh's intelligence chief, Kim Man Bok, secretly visited Pyongyang on Aug. 2-3 to discuss a summit, the South Korean government said in a statement Wednesday.

There, according to the South Korean account, Kim was given a proposal stating that "the North Korean leader had long wished to meet with President Roh Moo-hyun . . . but the situation was not ripe for such a meeting." The proposal conveyed Kim Jong Il's "message that the current moment is the most appropriate time for it, thanks to the recent improvements in South-North Korean relations and the regional situation."

After returning to Seoul for consultations, Kim Man Bok went back to Pyongyang on Aug. 4, carrying a letter of acceptance from Roh, the statement said. A deal regarding the summit was signed there Aug. 5.

The South's opposition Grand National Party condemned the secrecy of those contacts, dismissing the resulting summit deal as a political stunt ahead of presidential elections in December. For now, the opposition party is leading in the polls, but Roh's party would probably receive a boost if he sits down with Kim Jong Il.

A joint statement by the two governments said the summit would serve to "expand and develop" relations. South Korea said it would press for completion of the North's promised nuclear disarmament, regular summits, heightened economic links and other exchanges and steps designed to build military trust.

Debate broke out immediately in Seoul on exactly what to offer the North in the talks and what to refuse. The Roh government pledged to coordinate closely with parliament on those issues.

The two Koreas remain on a war footing more than half a century after an all-out military conflict that lasted three years. Their leaders have met only once before, in June 2000, when the South's President Kim Dae Jung flew to Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong Il.

The new summit comes at a time of relative detente. The North has agreed during six-country negotiations to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and has shut down its main reactor and readmitted U.N. nuclear inspectors. The communist state has already begun receiving its promised reward of increased aid and movement toward normalization of diplomatic relations.

In recent years, the South Korean public has moved away from a view of the North as a grave military threat. Some U.S. and Japanese officials worry that the South will undermine efforts to keep up strong pressure from all sides on the North to follow through on its disarmament pledge.

Other members of the six-party talks would expect South Korea to press the North on its nuclear pledge, analysts here said. But they called it unlikely that Kim Jong Il would respond positively, saying they expect him to demand large amounts of new aid from the affluent South, including long-term loans. With the more hawkish Grand National Party leading in opinion polls, North Korea might be calculating it will get the best deal from Roh in his final months in office, analysts said.

After the 2000 summit, Kim Dae Jung was widely faulted in the South for having previously approved secret payments to the North valued at about $186 million. Critics said that he had in effect bought himself a seat at the table with Kim Jong Il.

On Wednesday, the South Korean government denied that any inappropriate concessions had been made to secure the new meeting.

In Washington, U.S. officials welcomed the upcoming talks. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stressed to reporters the importance of continuing the joint negotiations. "The center of gravity of everybody's diplomatic efforts here really is in the six-party talks," he said. "You have South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, the United States and, it would seem, North Korea invested in this diplomatic process."

In Seoul, some South Koreans also criticized the location of the summit, Pyongyang rather than Seoul. At the close of the 2000 summit, the leaders' joint statement mentioned a "return trip" by Kim Jong Il to Seoul. Instead, South Korea's leader will again be going north. Analysts and citizens expressed concern that this might give Kim Jong Il the upper hand.

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