The leaders of South and North Korea have agreed to hold a summit, the second ever between presidents of the two countries. Any dialogue among Korean heads of state is to be welcomed, but the timing of this meeting is suspicious. It is tempting to dismiss the summit as a political stunt to shore up the image of the two men in South Korea, but it could have serious consequences.
Pictures of then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung meeting his North Korean rival, Mr. Kim Jong Il, in 2000, captivated the world and prompted an emotional outpouring in both Koreas. Since South Korean law banned most contacts with the North, and the Pyongyang government had steadfastly refused to recognize the legitimacy of its counterpart in Seoul, the first summit between South and North Korea signaled a transformation in relations on the divided Peninsula and dramatized hopes that the Cold War might finally be ending in Northeast Asia. The two Mr. Kims held warm and friendly discussions and concluded that they could do business with each other. South Korean compatriots took that sentiment to heart, commencing an unprecedented period of aid and economic interchange. Mr. Kim Dae Jung’s much debated “Sunshine Policy” had produced its biggest dividend.
It quickly became clear that rhetoric outpaced reality. While South Koreans, their capital and their aid traveled north, there were few return visits. Inter-Korean dialogue continued to be frustrating, with promises made, broken, repeated and grudgingly implemented — if at all. The culprit was invariably North Korea, which was slow to reciprocate Southern gestures. Most tellingly, North Korea’s Mr. Kim never returned the visit of Mr. Kim Dae Jung, despite promising at the summit to do so. When pressed, North Korean officials would point out that “the time was not right.”
The halting pace of reconciliation and the seemingly one-sided Korean exchange embittered many South Koreans and created disillusionment with the Sunshine Policy. The discovery that Seoul had paid millions of dollars for the initial summit added to the antagonism.
It was long rumored that the two Koreas were discussing a second summit. It was thought that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun wanted a meeting with Mr. Kim to match his predecessor, solidify his legacy and give his party a boost in December presidential elections. A visit, with all the pomp, international attention and emotion, would buoy his image and hopefully the progressive side in the upcoming ballot. It should also push the drama involving two dozen South Korean missionaries taken hostage in Afghanistan off the front pages.
Mr. Kim no doubt expects a payoff, either in cash under the table as in the past or in substantial dollops of assistance (or both). Mr. Roh is reportedly preparing a substantial package of aid, worth billions of dollars, focusing on infrastructure. Mr. Kim also wants more support from South Korea and China (and Russia) in the negotiations over his country’s nuclear program in the Six Party Talks. Outreach to the South is a demonstration of his willingness to deal and should help color his image and win some sympathy in the negotiations.
Finally, and most important, Mr. Kim is counting on another outpouring of emotion among South Koreans that could swing the vote in December toward the left. Currently, the conservative Grand National Party is leading in the polls, and the GNP backs a harder line on inter-Korean dialogue, starting with an insistence on greater reciprocity in North-South relations. A summit could shift the election momentum and help a president more sympathetic toward — or at least not as suspicious of — Pyongyang.
South Korean officials insist that the Aug. 28-30 meetings will be used to press Mr. Kim to honor the promise to give up the North’s nuclear-weapons program and its components. Other agenda items include inter-Korean dialogue, economic cooperation and military confidence building. It is unclear, however, just how hard Mr. Roh will push and what concessions he is ready to make to guarantee a successful outcome. For that matter, it is also unclear what he considers to be a “success.”
South Korean expectations are low. They remember the euphoria and disillusionment that followed the 2000 summit. They fear that their president is playing politics with national security. Many South Koreans are quick to point out that Mr. Kim has never made his return visit. They are eager to see tensions between the two Koreas diminish, and look for greater reconciliation and some progress toward reunification. But South Koreans are also proud people, and they do not want to be taken for granted. They understand the stakes involved in this summit. We hope Mr. Roh does, too.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.