Little Expected From Inter-Korean Summit

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s three-day summit with Kim Jong-il starting Tuesday will offer plenty of rhetoric and symbolism, not much in the way of concrete discussions on building a sustainable peace regime.

For one thing, he’s making the trip to Pyongyang fewer than three months ahead of the presidential election to choose his successor. And with popularity ratings for ruling party presidential hopefuls hovering in single digits, the possibility for the next administration falling to the conservative opposition is beginning to take on the air of inevitability.

Also, despite Roh’s efforts to cast the talks as a high point of his legacy, the North’s Kim appears hardly ready to reciprocate with the kind of step to lessen military tension that could enable the present rapprochement to jump to a higher stage.

Kim evidently wants more economic aid, but not at the expense of pushing through desperately needed reforms to revitalize his isolated economy. He is in urgent need of ways to improve the chances of his regime surviving, and yet shows no sign of genuinely giving up his dangerous nuclear program.

As Kim remains reclusive and mysterious, Roh relishes this week’s chance to talk peace and economic collaboration. He is taking a mammoth delegation of 200 people — officials, politicians, businessmen and reporters (but not one foreign correspondent, whose views could be expected to be far more skeptical than those of boosterish local reporters). There are even a few entertainers and cultural figures along for the ride. They will meet their counterparts for short, perfunctory contacts, focusing on bettering relations.

The mood will be determinedly upbeat. Seoul officials say one of the highlights will be Roh and his party crossing the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone by motorcade. Then Roh and his wife will step out of their limousine and walk over the final stretch of the Military Demarcation Line that formally divides the South from North.

The picture of this border-crossing is meant to underscore the success of the “sunshine” policy of reconciliation that began under Roh’s predecessor Kim Dae-jung in 1997. It is meant to convey a powerful symbol of the two Koreas being connected after 62 years of partition at the end of the World War II.

But cooler heads will no doubt prevail over their discussion of the real issues of division, and talks will be tough. According to South Korean officials, Roh hopes to take up the following four topics with Kim:

Denuclearization. Under a February agreement reached in the ongoing six-party talks – the two Koreas, US, Japan, Russia and China – the North agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons development program in exchange for massive aid to the equivalent of 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. China and South Korea have already supplied 50,000 tonnes each, and the US has just approved US$25 million for provision of 50,000 tonnes. In response, the North has shut down – under verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency – its main 5 megawatt reactor producing weapons-grade plutonium.

As the six-party Beijing talks enter the second phase of the agreement, obligating the North to disclose “all” of its nuclear programs, including the undisclosed portion dealing with uranium enrichment, the talks are stalling on the North’s demand for a US statement removing Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

It’s unlikely the Roh-Kim summit will break this impasse, given the North’s stand that its nuclear program is an agenda for discussion with the US, not with the South. It will be surprising, according to analysts here, if Kim even broaches the subject with Roh in Pyongyang. The North considers the South completely out of the picture as far as the nuclear issue is concerned.

Peace Regime. President Roh considers the reduction of military tension on the peninsula a main concern, insisting that the current armistice should be replaced by a formal peace treaty. One snag here is the fact that South Korea is not a signatory to the 1953 armistice agreement that stopped the Korean War. It was signed by the US with North Korea and China. Both Washington and Seoul want this ceasefire agreement supplanted by a formal treaty ending the technical state of war, but insist Pyongyang should first abandon its nuclear program. One hitch here is that if this peace treaty is signed, it will prompt the North to demand the withdrawal of 30,000 US troops from the South, which neither Washington nor Seoul, at this stage, is prepared to accept, especially in view of the North’s aggressive armed forces numbering 1.1 million men poised across the border.

The challenge of building a sustained peace regime that could lead to lowering the military tension is complicated by knotty political issues. The North insists the South should abolish the National Security Law that outlaws the communist party and pro-North Korean activities, while the South demands the North remove from its party charter its pledge to “free” South Korea from foreign “occupation” and turn it into a “socialist” state.

Neither side is ready to concede, with Kim being especially keen on retaining his family dynasty cloaked in the name of socialism. Indeed, the division serves Kim’s purpose of staying in power forever. For the first time since the war, defense ministers of the two sides are to meet for tension-reduction steps but few expect real progress anytime soon.

Economic aid. This is one area where more progress is expected. Ever since the first summit in 2000, reconciliation has been most pronounced in the area of economic aid. Today, bilateral trade, taking place in the form of barter but also involving a significant cash transfer to the North, is worth about US$1.3 billion a year. About 7,000 North Korean workers are employed by South Korean companies at the Kaesong Industrial Complex north of the border, who are paid in US dollars. They produce US$15 million worth of light industrial goods some of which exported to the world market.

Hoping that increased economic benefits from the South will help melt the Stalinist system of central control in Pyongyang, Roh is taking a group of 18 top industrialists on this trip, including executives from Hyundai Motor, Samsung Electronics and LG. None of them, however, appear eager for massive investment at this stage, especially under security threats posed by the nuclear program. Indeed, many in the business community say, on condition of anonymity, that their trip is mainly to “take the pulse” and see for themselves the scale of economic catastrophe in the North. Some even say they would rather choose foreign workers to North Korean laborers, for fear of security concerns.

News reports from the North indicate that the regime, ahead of its South Korean visitors, is blocking all road access to Pyongyang for ordinary people, while placing its security forces on alert, presumably against any civil disturbances. Following the devastating famine that struck the North in 1995, and in the wake of floods caused by torrential rains in the past few weeks, party officials are said to be especially anxious to show people “strongly united” behind Kim.

Confidence-building. South Korean officials take pride in showcasing their success in building trust with the North, citing Kim’s allowing Roh and his party to travel to Pyongyang by car. En route, Roh may get a firsthand impression of the North Korean economy. But at the entrance to Pyongyang, he is expected to be greeted by tens of thousands of North Koreans waving paper flowers to welcome visitors. The possibility of Great Leader Kim Jong-il himself appearing at the scene to lead the welcoming party is discounted, as he wants to be seen as higher in stature than Roh. Instead, Roh will be welcomed by Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament and No. 2 in the official pecking order. That has sparked comments from the conservative opposition that Roh is in effect allowing Kim to “slight” him, even after giving so much economic aid to North Korea.

Another controversial aspect of the trip is Roh’s agreement to watch the Arirang mass propaganda show in which thousands of card-shuffling children and adults present picture sequences depicting North Korea’s socialist achievements, including their false claim of having “defeated” the US invasion of the North. As far as the South is concerned, this propaganda show has been rated a disaster because tens of thousands of workers who would otherwise be productively engaged are mobilized to feed the personality cult of the Kim family. Youngsters and adults are so rigorously trained for this show that they must skip meals or toilet trips during performances. Human rights groups in the South say President Roh should have turned down the spectacular, as it symbolizes the acceptance of the regime’s propaganda.