Summit fuels Kim's nuclear ambitions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am

The wily leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, appears to have taken a giant step towards getting his nation accepted as a nuclear weapons state.

When the North and South Koreans announced recently that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had been granted a summit meeting in Pyongyang this month, there was speculation that Mr Roh would try to persuade Mr Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

Sceptical South Koreans, Americans and Japanese experienced in analysing North Korea contended that, instead, Mr Kim would urge Mr Roh to acknowledge the North had become a nuclear weapons state, like India and Pakistan.

A former South Korean foreign minister, Han Sung-joo, said recently that, despite the apparent progress in talks intended to end Mr Kim's nuclear ambitions: 'North Korea is on the way to being recognised as a nuclear weapons state.'

Mr Han said the critical question for South Korea, Japan, the US, China and Russia - which are negotiating with the North in the six-party talks - was to determine 'how we can live with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons'.

Mr Kim has been seeking for years to have those countries represented in the negotiations agree that his nation is armed with nuclear weapons. North Korea tested a nuclear device last October. As agreed this February, it has shut down its nuclear plant in Yongbyon, but nothing more.

A concession by Mr Roh on nuclear arms would most likely crack the unity of the five nations bargaining with North Korea in talks hosted by China in Beijing.

In addition to concessions from South Korea, the summit is intended to shore up Mr Kim's standing at home. Repeated rumours have wafted out of the hermit kingdom that he is either ill, or a group of dissenters has become dissatisfied with his rule, especially the mismanagement of the economy.

Mr Kim has sought to dispel those rumours by visiting army posts and factories.

Further, he is evidently seeking to influence South Korea's presidential election in December so that a candidate favouring concessions to the North would be elected. Similarly, South Koreans said Mr Roh hopes to influence the campaign to help elect a candidate who would follow his policies. He is limited to one five-year term.

Choson Ilbo, a newspaper generally critical of Mr Roh, opposed the summit meeting, asserting: 'This is a presidential election scheme. There's no national consensus, no transparency in the way it was arranged and no justification.'

The paper further asserted: 'There's no way of knowing what kind of political deal has been struck under the table.'

That referred to reports of secret payments made by former president Kim Dae-jung to North Korea for his summit in 2000.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington