Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, August 08, 2007
The summit is scheduled to be held in Pyongyang Aug. 28-30, Roh's office said, adding that the meeting "is expected to contribute to peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula" and to "provide momentum to settle the North Korean nuclear problem."
It said officials from the two governments would meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesong next week to discuss the agenda and other issues.
Pyongyang's mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), confirmed the announcement, saying the summit "will be of weighty significance in opening a new phase of peace on the Korean peninsula, co-prosperity of the nation and national reunification."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore was quoted as welcoming news of the summit. She said South Korea had notified the U.S. in advance of the plan.
This will be the second-ever meeting between leaders of the two Koreas, which have been separated since the end of World War II. A 2000 meeting between the reclusive Kim Jong-il and Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, was the centerpiece of Seoul's "sunshine" policy of engagement, which won the South Korean leader the Nobel peace prize.
The acclaimed 2000 summit was meant to pave the way for radically improved relations between the democratic, U.S.-allied South and its Stalinist neighbor. But Pyongyang was subsequently found to have violated a nuclear agreement with the U.S., a discovery that triggered a lengthy standoff with the international community, exacerbated by provocative missile launches and a reported Oct. 2006 nuclear weapons test.
The situation improved somewhat last February after North Korea agreed to "shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment" its nuclear facilities located in Yongbyon. It subsequently suspended operations at a nuclear reactor there, although conservative North Korea-watchers in the U.S. and South Korea remain deeply skeptical of the "denuclearization" pledge.
Roh frequently has voiced a readiness to meet with Kim before Roh's single five-year term ends next January. Now, with presidential elections looming, the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) sees the new summit as an attempt to influence voters in favor of candidates from the liberal, pro-Roh Uri Party, which is lagging in the polls.
"We oppose the South-North summit talks, whose timing, venue and procedures are all inappropriate," GNP spokeswoman Na Kyung-won said in a statement Wednesday.
"It's highly likely a gambit to shake the presidential race and prevent a regime change at a time when the election is only four months away," Na said.
The GNP has yet to select its candidate, but the two frontrunners in its primary race - former Seoul mayor Lee Myun-bak and ParkGuen-hye, the daughter of a former military ruler - both lead in the polls against Uri hopefuls.
Although Uri was formed after the Kim Dae-jung presidency, it has been closely associated with the "sunshine" policy instituted by Kim and adopted by his successor. A successful North-South summit would give the policy -- and presumably Uri -- a massive boost.
The GNP is critical of the engagement policy, saying Seoul has been overly willing to make concessions to the North without insisting on reciprocal steps.
During the drawn-out nuclear crisis, South Korea continued to send aid shipments to the North, suspending them only after Pyongyang announced in Oct. 2006 that it had carried out a nuclear weapons test.
After last February's "denuclearization" pact, Seoul was quick to resume shipments of fertilizer and rice. It also has resumed shipments of heavy fuel, in line with the February agreement.
North Korea, which characterizes the GNP as lackeys of the United States, has frequently shown itself willing to interfere in South Korean politics.
"It is hard to believe the North does not have an intention to guide South Korean politics in its direction," Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University, told Seoul's Yonhap news agency Wednesday.
In an editorial earlier this week, Pyongyang's state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper linked the goal of unifying the peninsula with getting rid of the influence of "foreign forces" - usually a reference to the U.S.
"Only when all Koreans in the North and the South and overseas dynamically forge ahead, resolutely opposing and rejecting the foreign forces' interference and domination and flunkeyism towards and dependence upon them, holding aloft the banner of national independence, can they surely accomplish the cause of national reunification," it said.
The two Koreas are still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, rather than a peace treaty. The U.S. has stationed thousands of troops in South Korea - some 30,000 at present - to help protect it against aggression from the North.
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