Talk with Kim Jong-il doesn't come cheap
The notion of a summit between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and North Korea's 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il once seemed so far-fetched as to be hardly worth considering. Now, rumours of another North-South summit reverberate through Seoul as if it might actually happen this year.
There is, however, no clear sign that Kim has any intention of receiving Lee in Pyongyang - or, far less likely, coming down to Seoul. All we know for sure is that the North is not insulting Lee as much as it was a year ago, and is more interested in talking than it was a few months ago.
The trouble is that all North Korea wants to talk about is wringing money out of South Korea. The reason for talks about the Kaesong industrial complex, just above the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas 60 kilometres north of Seoul, is to see how to make the South Korean factories there more efficient - and also get them to pay more for the 40,000 North Korean workers, none of whom ever sees the salaries they are supposed to receive.
And the reason for talking about resuming tours to Mount Kumkang, the cluster of granite peaks above the eastern end of the DMZ, is they brought huge sums into North Korean coffers. But no way will North Korea accept a joint investigation of the fatal shooting by a North Korean soldier of a South Korean woman in July 2008 as she wandered outside the tourist zone - the reason Lee stopped the tours.
Disagreements over Kaesong and Kumkang, however, are secondary to the overwhelming problem of security issues on the Korean peninsula. North Korea does not want to talk to South Korea about anything to do with security, and will exclude Seoul from any discussion of its nuclear programme.
Lee, however, has said that North Korea must be willing to talk about its nuclear programme in any inter-Korean summit. He would also raise the topic of the thousands of South Koreans held by the North as slave labour since the Korean war, and hundreds of fishermen captured when their boats strayed in or near North Korean waters. Lee might even raise the topic the north wants most to avoid; egregious violations of its people's human rights.
No such matters came up in the two previous summits between Kim and South Korean presidents, in June 2000 when he received Kim Dae-jung, and in October 2007, when he received Roh Moo-hyun.
But times have changed. Kim Dae-jung and Roh, left-leaning advocates of reconciliation, passed away last year. North Korea is now paying the price, in the form of UN Security Council sanctions, for testing a long-range missile last April and a nuclear device in May. It is also suffering from hunger and disease approaching the level of the great famine of the 1990s. Under these circumstances, Kim may yet agree to an inter-Korean summit at which all topics are on the table.
Lee, however, has imposed one more condition that would make a summit all but impossible: he will not secretly send millions of dollars to the north, as did Kim Dae-jung, just for the sake of a summit.
Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals