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KOREAS: &#39Bilateral Summit – Wrong Place, Wrong Time&#39

Ahn Mi-Young

SEOUL, Aug 13 2007 (IPS) - If you try to please your host too much you risk being snubbed. This could be the advice that South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun gets from his mentor and predecessor in office, Kim Dae-Jung, as he prepares to fly to Pyongyang for a bilateral summit this month.

It is now seven years since the mentor met North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang under circumstances vastly different than this second summit set for Aug. 28 – 30.

South Koreans almost uniformly welcomed the 2000 summit. Every smile, gesture and humourous aside between the leaders of the two Koreas – technically at war since the 1950-53 armed hostilities – was lapped up and discussed by the public here.

This time, South Koreans are more circumspect. While many welcome it as a chance to secure peace, others shrug it off as nothing more than a political ploy to back up an unpopular president.

‘’Yes, it is pretty useful and necessary for the leaders of the two Koreas to hold a summit again,’’ said Song Young-Dae, a former unification assistant minister and now professor at Sookmyung University. ‘’However the summit is inappropriate for timing and place,’’ he said.

Seven years ago Kim had promised to visit Seoul for the second summit. North Korea experts in Seoul say it is hard for the South to give the leader of the North a ‘’unified welcome’’ and that such a visit was bound to draw protests and demonstrations that Kim would find hard to swallow.

South Korean business generally welcomes the second summit in the hope of taking their business in North Korea to a higher level. ‘’We want the summit to help us to get rid of the ‘three headaches’ in doing business with North Korea – costly freightage (across the border), poor telecommunications and time-consuming customs clearance,’’ said Kim Ki-Mon, chief executive of the Romanson watch company, who employs 400 North Koreans workers at his factory in the eastern border city of Kaeseong in North Korea.

The first summit was a milestone for the two Koreas to engage in business. In North Korea, a communist country that survived the end of the Cold War, workers were inspired to seek better wages and finally got a five percent wage hike as demanded, recently.

Also, hundreds of South Koreans are riding across the border every day to camp within view of the sacred Mt. Kumgang.

On the other hand, the first summit fell short of expectations. Hopes for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula turned out to be false as also the release of hundreds of South Korean POWs and abductees still believed to be held by North Korea.

North Korea also refused to recognise the Northern Limit Line (NLL)) off the West Sea. During the crab-fishing season, the navies of the two Koreas clashed near the NLL in 1999 and 2002, leaving dozens dead and injured on both sides.

And now North Korea is demanding cancellation of joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea that is timed to coincide with the summit.

Like the first summit, Seoul appears to be clear about what to offer North Korea – cash, food and energy. Even in the face of opposition at home, Roh is expected to promise funds to refurbish an aging railway system that is a drain on North Korea’s logistics.

North Korean experts in Seoul estimate the bill for rebuilding failing infrastructure could top the 60 billion dollar mark over 2006-2015. In the face of criticism at home, it may make sense to spend less for defence and more on help for North Korea to modernise its railways that carry 90 percent of the country’s cargo and 60 percent of the passengers. But the new railways would eventually transport cargo from South Korean to the North experts say.

Tokyo has turned tough on North Korea over the dozen Japanese abductees held in North Korea and over its missile tests, while the South Korean government remains mostly silent over hundreds of POWs and abductees still held in North Korea. The result is that South Korea is now the major donor of food for its 23 million people and fuel for its factories.

But Seoul is yet to clarify what it expects to gain from the summit. ‘’The second summit appears to be flawed in that it does not seem to have a clear agenda to discuss. Both governments are unable to present its agenda for the summit clearly, making it uncertain about why it should be held and what is supposed to talk,’’ said Prof. Song.

It is widely believed that the summit would work only if it helps the ongoing six-nation (U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea plus North Korea) talks to persuade Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons programme. The summit could serve as a useful catalyst for the six-way talk and may help elicit meaningful concessions on the nuclear issue.

North Korea was internationally praised for its initial compliance with efforts to scrap its nuclear weapons programme when it shut down in July its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for international aid, including 950,000 tons of heavy oil from South Korea. This has increased chances for North Korea to replace the truce with a peace accord with the U.S.

It is hard to expect the North to make a public commitment at the second summit to end its nuclear ambitions. ‘’That won’t likely happen unless the North fulfills its desire to establish normal diplomatic relationship with the U.S. and unless the North makes sure to keep its regime in power with a new heir to succeed Kim,’’ said Okonoki Masao, law school dean at Geio University in Japan during an interview given to the ‘Donga’ newspaper on Aug. 11.

‘’Roh and Kim appear to be into a win-win game,’’ added Masao. ‘’President Roh may want to leave a track record from the summit before he steps down next February. Leader Kim may want to help the pro-North Korea ruling party led by Roh. If Kim allows Roh to take a little credit for making some more concessions on the nuclear programme, he would be smartly able to maximise what North Korea could receive from South Korea.’’

North Korea sees Roh as its last chance to obtain as much aid as possible before a possible victory by the conservative opposition party in the presidential elections this December.

If North Korea disappoints the South Korean people by sending the President back empty-handed it would only put North Korea at a greater risk of further strengthening the conservative, opposition Grand National Party, which favours a harder line.

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