The Two Koreas Plan to Meet Again

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Yonhap / AP

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, left, leans and listens to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the Baekhwawon Guest House in Pyongyang during a luncheon party, June 15, 2000.

Relations between North Korea and the rest of the world — including its neighbor to the South — are beginning to look like a feedback loop. On Wednesday morning, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Jong Il announced that they will meet for three days of talks at the end of this month in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, just the second time in history that the leaders of the Koreas will have met. But it already seems like a pattern. Back in 2000, with much fanfare, Kim Jong Il met his South Korean counterpart in a historic North South summit, where the two sides worked to try to bury a hatchet that's now more than 50 years old. But then tensions with the U.S. over the nuclear issue blunted any forward momentum and a scandal later revealed the summit to have been very much a sham. Will this meeting, scheduled for Aug. 28-30 in Pyongyang, be any different?

Seoul said this morning that diplomats from both North and South will immediately begin lower-level meetings in advance of the summit. They will gather at the Kaesong Industrial park, just north of the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953. The choice of site pays implicit homage to the June 2000 summit between Kim Jong Il and then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The Kaesong park — where South Korean light manufacturing plants employ North Korean workers — is one of the few lasting achievements to come out of that meeting. After Kim Dae Jung's term ended in year 2003, an investigation revealed that his chief aide had made off-the-books payments to North Korea in advance of the summit — payments that, according to the critics of Kim Dae Jung, were little more than bribes to get Kim Jong Il and his cash-hungry regime to participate.

It is no surprise then that Roh Moo Hyun's political opponents in Seoul immediately cast aspersions on the summit, saying it was more for show and about politics than peace on the Korean peninsula. Roh's term ends this year, and the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) leads in most polls taken so far in the lead-up to presidential elections to be held in December. Opposition politicians noted that the summit takes place just one week after the GNP selects its candidate for the December election. "Rhetorical declarations of peace with North Korea don't amount to anything without concrete actions that resolve real problems," says Kim Yong-gap, a GNP member of the unification committee.

Still, the proponents of the meeting can plausibly argue that the atmospherics surrounding the Korean summit are better than they were in 2000 — and that this time they do have momentum on their side. Back in 2000, it had been six years since the North Korean regime had signed a nuclear deal with the United States, and by the time the two Kims met, neither Pyongyang nor the U.S. had lived up to their sides of a 1994 agreement. This time, diplomats and politicians in Seoul insist, the summit comes amid genuine momentum on the nuclear front — momentum that they believe the meeting at the end of August will add to. Inspectors from the United Nations were in North Korea last month to verify that the Pyongyang had idled its nuclear plant at Yongbyon. That was a key part of the agreement the North made in February, which detailed the steps the regime needed to take to live up to a pact it signed onto in the so called six-party talks in September of 2005. (The February agreement also laid out the diplomatic steps and economic assistance the other parties to the talks — the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — were to take in return for the North's cooperation.)

"The U.S. has encouraged South Korea to take any steps that will help resolve the nuclear issue, and this meeting is going forward within that framework," says Kim Won Woong, chief of the National Unification Committee in South Korea's parliament and a member of Roh Moo Hyun's ruling Uri party. By contrast, in 2000, the parliamentarian told TIME, "neither the U.S. nor China [the North's most important ally] supported the inter-Korean summit. It's different this time." Now, not just the South Korean president wants to see the ice of the Cold War in Korea melting, but George W. Bush and China's Hu Jintao as well. And Kim Jong Il in the North appears to be playing along. If he continues to do so, always a big if, then this film’s second reel may turn out to be different after all. With reporting by Stephen Kim /Seoul