The Risky Road to Pyongyang

Seven years ago, when President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il held their groundbreaking summit talks in Pyongyang, the North Korean dictator ended his handshakes by declaring that he would be in Seoul for the second round of summit talks.

It never happened. And the fact that he reneged on that promise may explain the glaring absence of excitement over the announcement that a second summit, this time between Kim and South Korea’s President Roh Moo Hyun, will be held this month in Pyongyang.

For Roh, it is a chance for a dramatic swan song as he nears the end of his term. He will step down early next year because the constitution forbids a second term in office. Following the presidential election in December, a different administration will look after North Korean policy for five years.

If nothing else, Roh and Kim seem to share the hope that the policy of engagement pursued first by Kim Dae Jung will somehow continue. If the conservative Grand National Party takes office, as the polls suggest at this stage, a somewhat tougher line may be expected, although even the right-wingers leading the party have called for greater engagement with the North, reversing decades of fierce anti-communist rhetoric. But the conservatives remain a worry for Kim, and that’s precisely why he is agreeing to meet with Roh, hoping to provide the liberal camp in South Korea with an indirect electoral boost.

It’s too early to see if this gambit will work. The official announcement of the second summit has not ushered in a mood of celebration. Unlike in June 2000, the reaction this time is muted, hardly jubilant. The Seoul stock market index gained a few points, but the general reaction has been guarded. For months now, rumors have been flying that Roh will do “everything possible” to hold a new summit with Kim. The main reason seems to be the hope that it will boost the electoral chance of the severely divided liberals in December.

Although a large segment of voters is disenchanted by the North’s nuclear ambitions and remains critical of Seoul’s policy of largesse and reconciliation, they still crave for reduced tension between the two sides.

But the summit, slated for August 28 to 30, appears hobbled by a number of factors. The first is the secrecy surrounding negotiations for the summit, with Seoul’s top intelligence chief having made two unpublicized trips to the North as Roh’s emissary. That underscores the point that the government may have bowed too much to Pyongyang, allowing it to dictate the terms of the talks.

Another point of contention is the lack of agreement on an agenda. What, really, is the point? More aid for North Korea? More legitimacy to the North’s demand for the removal of US troops in the South? Is the North attempting to drive a wedge into the US-Korean alliance by agreeing to summit talks separate from the six-party denuclearization process now underway?

The official statement merely says that the talks will deal with “the joint prosperity of the nation,” which will supposedly take the cause of “fatherland reunification to a new stage.”

The secret negotiations were conducted between Kim Man Bok, the head of the National Intelligence Service in Seoul, and Kim Yang Gon, the North’s leading official in charge of relations with the South. This secret channel, principally involving intelligence agencies, flies against Roh’s own public position over the years that all dealings with the North should be transparent and publicly accountable. Roh has opened himself up to attacks that he is using the intelligence apparatus and national security for political purposes.

Suspicions over a backroom deal also abound. Former president Kim Dae Jung was severely criticized for making an unpublicized, unauthorized “gift” of US$450 million in cash “aid” to the North just before his landmark summit, prompting accusations that he practically “bought” his face-time with Kim. This time, even before the summit talks begin, opposition critics are wondering exactly how much has been offered or will be paid for the talks.

Whatever the agenda, prospects for substantial agreements appear dim. Roh mainly wants the North committed to a gradual thaw along the Demilitarized Zone. Only two days before the announcement, North Korea troops opened fired on South Korean guard posts. No one was hurt but the South returned fire, reminding everyone of what a dangerous place the border can be.

The North, while it badly needs more of the food, fertilizers and fuel it is already getting in exchange for shutting down the main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, still has a hawkish military that pursues the contentious goal of redrawing the border in the Yellow Sea that demarcates the two sides, even at the risk of more clashes with the South. Is Kim pushing for a South Korean concession on this issue at the summit? Is he eyeing a compromise reunification formula – perhaps a confederated system, an idea that has been raised cautiously by Roh’s liberal supporters? These issues have the potential to get Roh into trouble.

Beyond the immediate horizon, the Kim-Roh talks will have significant implications for the future of the six-party talks in Beijing. Pyongyang has shut down its main nuclear reactor, but the next stage requires it to report all its nuclear assets, including plutonium and enriched uranium material likely stored for bomb-making. Since the North wants this process to be matched “action by action, word by word”, the US and four other participants –China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – are being asked to come forth with more aid and diplomatic recognition.

How will the summit affect the multilateral process in Beijing? Will it allow Kim to use the bilateral channel to cripple and divide the six-way talks in Beijing?

Having managed to get his long-awaited date with Kim, Roh will now have to figure out a way to come home triumphant from Pyongyang. It will not be easy. .