Summit: right idea at wrong time?

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The opportunity to engage Kim Jong-il, the leader of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), in serious dialogue is inherently attractive. A face-to-face meeting with Kim has the potential to break through a fog of misperception and mistrust.

Given the nature of the DPRK system, the key decisions can only be made at the very top of the pyramid of power. One summit encounter is therefore potentially more valuable then scores of ministerial meetings or talks among senior officials.

These opportunities have unfortunately been extremely rare. Despite some 35 years of intermittent dialogue going back to the South-North talks held in 1972, this would mark only the second time the top leaders of divided Korea have met each other.

The hope for momentum created by the historic meeting of President Kim Dae-jung with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in June 2000 swiftly dissipated, disappointing many Koreans.

This may appear to be the right moment to restore the impetus to the North-South summitry. Since the 2000 summit, the process of engagement between the Koreas has deepened dramatically, ranging from extended contacts among officials to the flow of tourists, at least from the South to the North, across the border.

Economic exchanges are widespread, from the Gaeseong industrial park to a growing trade in goods. And the six-party talks to reach an agreement to dismantle the DPRK's nuclear program are at least moving forward, in large part due to the resumption of direct diplomatic negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

There are serious reasons, however, to question whether this is the right time for a second inter-Korean summit.

First and foremost, President Roh Moo-hyun is, in every sense of the word, a lame duck. When the summit was scheduled to take place, it was less than three months until the presidential election.

The election campaign is unusually uncertain, with the ruling party and its allies still in the process of selecting their nominee. Polls indicate that a change in leadership --bringing the opposition Grand National Party to power -- is very possible.

While he remains in office, President Roh has every right to exercise his authority and leadership. But given the political uncertainties, and the vital nature of inter-Korean relations, it would seem imperative to secure bipartisan support not only for the summit but also for the policy outcome.

For any gains to be meaningful, there should be some assurance that these policies will continue in place whomever succeeds as president.

Without that broad support, charges that the summit meeting is motivated more by domestic political considerations gain credence.

Even worse, Pyongyang's decision to agree to hold the summit may also be a crude attempt on its part to try to influence the ROK election in favor of the progressive camp. Even if these charges are not true, they undermine the value that this summit may have to shape a long-term future for the peninsula.

The timing of the summit is also problematic because the nuclear negotiations with the DPRK have reached a very delicate moment.

The temporary halt to the operation of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and the reintroduction of international inspectors was an important gesture.

But the DPRK has not yet clearly decided to irreversibly disable its nuclear facilities and fully disclose its nuclear programs and arsenals.

The Roh administration claims this summit will reinforce this negotiation. But it also has declared that the nuclear issue will not be on the summit agenda. In the absence of a dismantlement deal, this summit may only serve to recognize the DPRK's claim to the status of a nuclear power.

But all of these problems of timing take a back seat, in my view, to the location of the inter-Korean summit. Kim Jong-il committed himself, in the 2000 joint declaration, to a return visit to Seoul. This was not a trivial matter -- it was perhaps the most difficult issue in the talks, as Kim Dae-jung said upon return to Seoul.

Everyone understands the historic significance of a visit by Kim to Seoul. It would finally signal the DPRK's acceptance of the legitimacy of the ROK and its leadership and the abandonment of its historic aim to force unification under its banner.

The DPRK leadership would be compelled to show its own people images of their leader in the glittering streets of Seoul. That visit alone could go much farther than any peace declaration, any agreement on boundaries, any military confidence-building measures, or any economic investment deals, toward bringing a permanent peace to the Korean Peninsula.

If this summit had occurred in the right place, then the issues of timing would be incidental. No one could object to a breakthrough of that magnitude. Unfortunately, Kim Jong-il was not pressed to live up to his commitment. If this meeting achieves anything, it should make it clear that the next summit will only be held in Seoul.