Korean puzzle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2007, 12:00am

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is clearly looking forward to his first face-to-face meeting with North Korea's 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang this week. But it still isn't clear what the two leaders will talk about. Just as the process leading up to the announcement of the meeting was kept secret so, too, is the agenda. In this case, however, it could be because there has yet to be a true meeting of minds about what will, and won't, be discussed. This is hard to accept or understand, from a US perspective. Recall that the proposed summit between Mr Kim and then-US president Bill Clinton in 2000 failed to materialise in large part because the North would not clarify the 'deliverables' - or outcomes - in advance.

Mr Roh seems all too willing to accept the North's approach of 'trust us, it will be a good meeting' - one that no US president would (or should) ever accept. This makes a lot of South Koreans and Americans very nervous. One can be pretty sure that Mr Kim has a firm idea of what he wants to get out of the meeting. Does Mr Roh?

On the surface, Mr Roh's motives and objectives seem relatively transparent: he is looking to build his legacy. While it is doubtful that even the most diplomatically successful effort will garner him a Nobel Prize - as the first North-South summit, in June 2000, did for his predecessor Kim Dae-jung - it could still be a feather in his cap. Similarly, not having a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-il would be seen as falling short of his stated objectives.

No doubt Mr Roh wants to give his fellow 'progressives' a boost in December's presidential election. Progress in North-South relations, or at least the appearance of it, would help in that regard. Mr Kim no doubt sympathises with, and shares, that objective.

Pyongyang has made no secret of its disdain and distrust of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), whose candidate Lee Myung-bak remains far ahead of any potential rivals from the ruling party camp - the actual candidate hasn't been chosen yet.

One has to suspect that a key reason for Pyongyang agreeing to the meeting now is to give the pro-engagement camp a boost. This does not imply, by the way, that the GNP is anti-engagement. It isn't, but it would insist on more reciprocity and much better terms than the current administration.

No doubt there are also economic motivations. While Pyongyang cannot expect to get another secret cheque - like the one for US$500 million that accompanied the 2000 summit - there is talk of a US$20 billion economic incentive package being among the gifts Mr Roh will take to the North. Given the failed nature of the North Korean state, every little bit helps, and US$20 billion is considerably more than a little bit.

The visit will also strengthen Mr Kim's 'legitimacy'. By agreeing to go north once again, South Korean leaders help play to Mr Kim's domestic image as the 'real' Korean emperor, with Mr Roh - gifts in hand - being seen as paying a tributary visit. One could imagine many excuses for why the 'Dear Leader' did not keep his promise to pay a reciprocal visit to the South after Kim Dae-jung's trip - notably his fear of a cool reception.

But the appearance of Mr Roh paying tribute is there, and will no doubt be played up by propagandists in the North.

Of greater concern, Pyongyang may have agreed to the summit in hopes of gaining leverage in discussions with the United States and China when it comes to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Mr Roh has made no secret of his desire for a North-South 'peace declaration', although the nature and content of such a declaration remain unclear. No one is expecting a legally binding, formal peace treaty to come out of the meeting.

The real concern is that any symbolic declaration should not be seen as a substitute for progress on a substantive peace agreement, or somehow be used to keep Seoul out of the continuing peace process.

Washington has been steadfast over the years in refusing to negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang that excludes Seoul. The old four-party talks broke down in 1999 largely because Pyongyang would not give Seoul equal status.

Pyongyang previously argued that there was no need for Seoul to be represented since South Korea did not sign the 1953 armistice, and because there was already a separate deal - the 1991 North-South Basic Agreement - between Seoul and Pyongyang.

A peace declaration that does not clearly state that both countries are sovereign equals - or one that can be used to imply otherwise, or to justify subsequently excluding Seoul from the real peace talks - would give Mr Roh a temporary, symbolic victory. But it would seriously undermine Seoul's long-term interests. Could this be Mr Kim's real motive?

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS