Two leaders risk chance meeting

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Two leaders risk chance meeting

The Blue House has confirmed that Russia has invited both President Park Geun-hye and her North Korean counterpart Kim Jung-un to a celebration slated for May that would mark the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat by the Soviet Union during World War II.

Seoul has yet to decide on whether it will accept the request, given the strategic considerations and the government’s calendar for 2015.

“We haven’t reached a decision since we need to go over the schedule for next year first,” a Blue House official said.

The possibility presents several scenarios, depending on who attends.

The South Korean government could find itself in a complicated position should the North Korean leader make an appearance. He has yet to debut on the global diplomatic stage, which makes the Russian-led event a tempting opportunity.

Kim previously expressed his enthusiasm for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month when he sent Choi Ryong-hae, the political bureau chief of the Korean People’s Army and a Workers’ Party secretary, as a special envoy.

“Kim Jung-un, who was educated in the West, is different from his hermit-like father and predecessor,” said Kim Keun-sik, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University. “Putin issued the invitation after Choi’s visit to Russia, indicating that he was responding to Kim’s offer.”

If Kim visits Moscow, it would be a “burden” as well as an “opportunity,” he added.

Other observers have speculated that Park and Kim could finally sit down for a historic summit at the celebration, or that they could simply maintain their distance.

The former would be demanding for South Korea, analysts say, given that the venue for talks would be outside the Korean Peninsula.

Still, others contend that the Park-Kim meeting would be a “breakthrough” in long-stalled inter-Korean relations.

“Next year, the Koreas will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, and the Park administration will enter its third year,” said a former official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “[A meeting between Park and Kim] will be a great opportunity for the Park administration to obtain momentum for growth.”

He also advised that the South Korean government prepare for possible talks by resolving immediate issues - in a meeting earlier next year with high-ranking officials from both sides, for instance.

Since 1995, Russia has hosted large-scale celebrations on May 9 each decade to mark the end of World War II, which it uses as an opportunity to bring world leaders together.

Fifty-three nations were invited to mark the anniversary in 2005. Leaders at the time included South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was not present.

But other experts believe Kim’s acceptance of the invitation is still not entirely positive.

“Many claim that ties between North Korea and China have worsened by comparison,” said Ko Yoo-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, “But if North Korea meets with Russia before it does with China, it could weigh heavily on the North. As much as North Korea wants a spotlight in international society through a summit with Russia, it could pursue a separate occasion instead of Kim’s visit to Moscow.”

With its economy floundering from falling oil prices and Western-imposed sanctions following its annexation of Crimea, Russia is hoping to use the international celebration as a chance to free itself from further penalties.

In that sense, a meeting with Kim could be interpreted negatively, which may mean it will opt for an arrangement made by Pyongyang.

Kim’s absence and U.S. President Obama’s attendance would also present certain opportunities for President Park. So far, Russia has issued invitations to all other member states in the six-party talks - the United States, China, Japan and both Koreas.

If Obama declines to participate in the event, however, Japan is likely to follow suit, which would put South Korea in a lonely position.

In 2005, the Roh Moo-hyun administration confirmed its attendance in early February to the Russian celebration in a tacit warning to North Korea’s leadership.

“Kim Jung-il has no record of joining an international event,” said a former official under the Roh government. “But the South confirmed its intention to attend, with the North tentatively joining. So it was up to North Korea to realize an inter-Korean leaders’ meeting in Moscow.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il declined the invitation, however, opting to visit the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang instead.

BY JEONG WON-YUP, SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]




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