The right time for a summitSeoul’s agreement to hold what will be a second inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang has brought President Roh Moo-hyun and his administration into the critics’ firing line once again.
Some carp that the president is merely trying to secure his legacy by agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-il this October. Others allege it is a tactical maneuver to alter the political landscape here before the presidential elections and that the next administration will be hamstrung by whatever deals are made.
Some say the decision is premature, that North Korea has yet to fully verify and dismantle its nuclear programs, and thus a meeting at this time may undermine the hard-won progress made at the six-party talks.
Still others complain that this decision is an example of uncoordinated diplomacy on the part of Seoul that benefits Pyongyang and does nothing but strain Seoul’s relations with its allies.
Are these political brickbats or valid criticisms? What are the circumstances exactly? Why hold a summit? Why now? What could the goals of the government be in carrying out a high-level “tete-a-tete” between the two heads of state? What would the prospective agenda be? All these are questions that deserve answers.
So let’s answer them.
To begin, why hold a summit and why now? With the presidential election in South Korea on the horizon, the decision to hold a summit has generated a huge debate about the timing. Many have called it nothing but a tactic by the incumbent leadership to influence the outcome of the presidential primary of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) ― as the summit’s initial August dates came on the heels of that event ― and ultimately the presidential election itself.
It is fair to be skeptical of the timing considering the politics. Yet many fail to remember that Kim Jong-il agreed back in June 2000 to visit Seoul for a summit meeting.
Inheriting the momentum of the June 2000 joint declaration, the Roh government has been duly waiting for the opportune time to hold a second summit.
The timing for a second meeting, however, has never been right. Not until now.
Not until this point has significant progress been made in the North Korean nuclear issue to permit an inter-Korean summit to be considered. Despite the strides made back with the signing of the September 2005 joint statement and the February 2007 agreements, not until the much-publicized Banco Delta Asia (BDA) affair was sufficiently resolved and progress made in the six-party talks could an inter-Korean summit be honestly contemplated.
Regardless, a GNP candidate has been produced, yet the criticism seems to have abated little. There are now cries that it is grossly unfair for the next administration ― whoever that will be ― to be expected to carry out whatever is agreed upon at the October summit.
Again, it is the timing that is being criticized, not the fact that a significant opportunity has been afforded us to improve inter-Korean relations ― an opportunity that may not still be around four or six months from now, for whatever reason.
The summit, which was originally set for Aug. 28 to 30, has been rescheduled at North Korea’s request to early October because of severe flood damage in the North, particularly in Pyongyang.
After 580 millimeters (23 inches) of rainfall inundated the North Korean capital over a 10-day period, the postponement is understandable -- not ostensible.
Other regions have been reportedly hit hard as well. Time will be needed to deal with the disaster, as the torrential rains have caused hundreds of deaths, the flooding or destruction of more than 88,000 houses, and the dispossession of more than 300,000 flood victims.
Nevertheless, with the BDA issue resolved and the six-party process to resolve the nuclear issue having made enormously positive strides, there is no reason the same positive strides should not be afforded inter-Korean relations.
In other words, the time for a summit has come.
Critics have rightly noted, however, that under the terms of the joint statement of the inter-Korean summit of June 2000, the North Korean leader is obliged to visit Seoul this time. This truly would have been a monumental step toward confidence-building between the two Koreas.
But as anyone familiar with Pyongyang’s insecurities over having Kim Jong-il make such a trip, coupled with the fact that the venue is not the issue ― the fact that the summit has been made possible makes this a rather unimportant point.
Timing is critical when the opportunity presents itself.
To continue the momentum for establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula; to improve stability and growth in the dynamic environment of Northeast Asia; to carry over the improved momentum in U.S.-D.P.R.K. relations, and to capitalize on the progress in the six-party talks ― to expedite all these is the goal and rationale for holding a summit this October.
As far as the agenda is concerned, it should no doubt focus on the core issues of promoting peace and establishing a peace structure on the Korean Peninsula, extending the vibrant economic relations we have seen between the two Koreas thus far, working toward confidence-building measures and addressing various humanitarian issues.
It should also be assumed that another important item on the agenda will be how the two Koreas can work to regularize this important high-level dialogue.
This and the above are all essential and meaningful, and high-level discussion on these issues need not be delayed another four or six months. If not this time, no one knows when the second summit will be held.
The international community itself through the voices of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and various foreign ministries have welcomed the news of the summit. Many believe it offers a significant opportunity to promote peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and improve inter-Korean relations.
The South Korean people as well appear to support the summit (though they are less sure on what tangible outcomes there will be).
If we miss this chance for the two Koreas to talk at the summit level, we might very well have to wait indefinitely for another chance to come.
*The writer is chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Northeast Asian Cooperation Initiative.
by Lee Su-hoon