S. Korean leader looks for payoff in summit with North

South Korean trucks carrying supply aid for flood-stricken North Koreans cross the border.
South Korean trucks carrying supply aid for flood-stricken North Koreans cross the border. Jo Yong-Hak / AP

SEOUL, South Korea — When North and South Korean leaders met seven years ago for a historic summit, they exchanged gifts to warm the atmosphere, among them pairs of rare hunting dogs, a huge flat-screen television, silver boxes and rare mushrooms.

In private, a more stunning gift changed hands: South Korea turned over some $500 million to Kim Jong Il's North Korean regime, a payment that greased the way for the summit.

So many are wondering what sort of gift exchange will occur Oct. 2-4 when South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korea's Kim meet for only the second summit in the divided Korean Peninsula's history. Analysts already identify the gift that Roh hopes will come his way: a "peace dividend" that may save his beleaguered party from defeat in presidential elections Dec. 19.

Preparations for the summit dominate headlines here even as analysts ponder the deals that Roh, a lame-duck leader, may strike to assure a place in the history books.

"It's his last chance. By going there, he might establish a legacy that the next president will have to carry on," said Ruediger Frank, an East Asia expert at the University of Vienna.

Roh's advisers brush aside criticism that the summit has been hastily arranged, designed to give Roh's sagging center-left Uri party an electoral boost, or that it may sap momentum from six-nation talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program. They say Roh is fulfilling a pledge to his nation's 49 million people.

"That was his campaign promise. He's a one-term president. Why should he transfer (the summit) to the next president? If he can have a summit, why not do it?" said Moon Chung-in, a political scientist at Yonsei University who advises Roh and will be attending the summit with him.

To Washington's chagrin, Roh has said that North Korea's new nuclear arsenal won't be a focus of the talks. Instead, he'll seek a peace declaration between the two sides, which signed a truce in 1953 but remain in a technical state of war.

"A peace treaty for Roh Moo-hyun is very important," said Park Syung Je, a military analyst with the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul. He added that the 61-year-old president wants to return from Pyongyang telling his countrymen: "We don't need such a large army anymore, and we can spend that money on social issues."

Roh's eagerness to reach a peace pact puts him at odds with the White House. In a testy exchange at a photo opportunity at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum earlier this month in Sydney, Australia, Roh pressed President Bush to offer support for a declaration to end the Korean War. Bush responded that Kim has "got to get rid of his (nuclear) weapons in a verifiable fashion" for the United States to agree to sign a peace treaty. Roh then urged Bush to "clarify" his message, and Bush retorted: "I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President."

The first summit, in June 2000, brought about tangible results, including tearful reunions of families divided by the war and construction of the joint Kaesong industrial park. Then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Peace Prize later that year. But the 2000 summit didn't ease military tensions significantly.

The peninsula remains heavily militarized. South Korea fields about 680,000 troops, backed by some 28,000 U.S. soldiers. North Korea has a 1.2 million-man army. As recently as August, shots broke out across the demilitarized zone.

By law, Roh can't seek re-election, and the candidate for his party has yet to be picked. Polls show that the nominee will have an uphill struggle against Lee Myung-bak, a former mayor of Seoul who's the candidate of the opposition Grand National Party.

Opponents say Roh's advisers planned the summit to boost the ruling party among young voters.

"The summit is going to turn out to be a stage where they can create a false image of peace that they can take to younger voters," said Lee Dong-bok, a Korea specialist in Seoul with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a veteran negotiator with North Korea. "They may not prevail."

Roh's critics say he makes concessions to Pyongyang too easily, only to find the gestures repaid last year with the North conducting its first nuclear-weapon test.

Among the concessions is the summit's venue. For the second time, it will occur in the North Korean capital, a sign of how eager Roh is to see it take place. At the last summit, North Korea's Kim promised to visit Seoul.

Supporters of Roh say it's a small concession, one akin to a mature older brother yielding to an irascible younger one, allowing Kim to cast the South as obeisant to him.

Roh's advisers have kept the agenda for the summit secret, but they aim to grab headlines with actions to reduce military tensions. Moon said the two sides would settle on military confidence-building steps, including the exchange of military personnel and the peaceful use of the common demilitarized zone.

They also may reconsider a new inter-Korean sea border, known as the Northern Limit Line, in the Yellow Sea, he said.

The United Nations drew the maritime demarcation at the Korean War's end. In 1999 and again in 2002, the two navies clashed over the sea border. In the past, Seoul balked at Pyongyang's insistence that the line be redrawn, seeing that as a territorial concession. Now, however, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung declares that the maritime border could be up for discussion, an announcement that's unsettled the South Korean military.

Nonetheless, Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo will join Roh at the summit, making him the first South Korean defense minister to visit North Korea.

For its part, Pyongyang will expect South Korea to pledge billions of dollars to help reconstruct an impoverished nation with a long-sputtering socialist economy.

"If at least part of this aid will be used for road-building, the electricity power grid, bridges and education, it will be good. The money will not be wasted," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Yet to be seen is whether Roh, like his predecessor, slips money to Kim under the table.

A spokesman, Oh Young-jin, said that wouldn't happen.

"The spirit of the upcoming summit is reconciliation and transparency. If there is any payment, it will be for everyone to see," Oh said.