SEOUL - Here's one way to upstage the rush to two-way dialogue between the
United States and North Korea: how about a third inter-Korean summit - this one
between South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak and North Korea's Kim Jong-il?
Unlikely though such a scenario might seem, the South Korean media, led by the
state-owned Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), suggest the question is not
entirely absurd. KBS reports that Kim Yang-gon, an influential North Korean
figure on dealings with the South, has been in Singapore seeing an unnamed but
"ranking" South Korean.
While South Korean sources have been saying the idea of a rendezvous between
the conservative Lee and the North's Dear Leader is preposterous, the Blue
House, the center of presidential
power in the South, refrained from the usual denial. Instead, while Lee was in
Vietnam and Cambodia, a spokesman cryptically refused to "confirm" such a
meeting had happened.
No doubt about it, a Lee-Kim summit would be an ultimate expression of North
Korea's desire to ease up on tensions and the South's promise to reciprocate if
only Kim agrees to give up his beloved nukes. If nothing else, the conservative
but pragmatic Lee would demonstrate that he's really just as interested in
reconciliation as were his two left-leaning predecessors, Roh Moo-hyun, who met
Kim in Pyongyang in October 2007, and Kim Dae-jung, who initiated the
"Sunshine" policy of reconciliation and flew to Pyongyang for the first
North-South summit in June 2000.
For the record, South Korea's Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, talking to
correspondents in Seoul, proclaimed South Korea "ready to meet with North Korea
regardless of the time, venue and opportunity to discuss possible improvement
of inter-Korean relations and the nuclear issue".
The problem, as South Korean leaders often note, is that North Korea has
repeatedly refused to include its nuclear program on any agenda for discussion
with the South. It seemed particularly appropriate that the topic of a
North-South summit should have arisen even as Lee Myung-bak was wheeling and
dealing in Cambodia and Vietnam, a once-divided nation where South Koreans
battled communist forces before "North" Vietnam's victory in 1975.
Call it fighting-talk or a two-track strategy, speculation about a North-South
Korean summit may be one expression of the concept of pursuing reconciliation
but preparing for the opposite. While Lee was traveling, top American and South
Korean defense officials agreed on the wording of sweeping commitments for the
US to give the South whatever is needed militarily to stave off what is seen as
a rising North Korean threat.
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates and South Korea's Defense Minister
Kim Tae Young signed a joint statement on Thursday guaranteeing the US nuclear
umbrella - along with conventional strike and missile capabilities. Gates
followed up by warning that North Korea's "emerging nuclear weapons programs
have a destabilizing effect both regionally and internationally".
The US pledge of support for South Korea in any eventuality appears as one of
the strongest made in recent years by American defense secretaries on their
annual visits here. It comes as the US and North Korea consider bilateral
dialogue that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others keep saying is
only to get the North to enter six-party talks on its nukes - and nothing else.
In a one-two punch, the American and South Korean defense chiefs issued their
statement hours after Clinton in Washington again said North Korea should "have
no illusions" about the US's determination to enforce sanctions until North
Korea gives up its nukes. Clinton came close to repeating the mantra of the
George W Bush administration, which came up with the acronym "CVID" for
"complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of its entire program,
saying "current sanctions will not be relaxed unto Pyongyang takes verifiable
irreversible steps toward complete denuclearization".
Picking up the baton in Seoul, Gates and Defense Minister Kim reaffirmed "the
US commitment to provide extended deterrence" for South Korea, "using the full
range of military capabilities, to include the US nuclear umbrella,
conventional strike, and missile capabilities".
Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, noted that US and South Korean defense
chiefs had not previously used the term "extended deterrence" in their
declarations. South Korean analysts strongly doubt if North Korea would ever
willingly give up its nukes, but defense officials see "extended deterrence" as
significantly buttressing previous affirmations of US support at a time when
the US has aroused concerns with plans to turn over wartime control to overall
South Korean command.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also in
consultations in Seoul, told a gathering of US troops that "tremendous change"
is afoot and "the Korean military is taking operational control" by April 2012.
The US, meanwhile, will be moving its headquarters from its historic base in
central Seoul to a new base 60 kilometers south of the capital and also
withdrawing from bases on the invasion route from North Korea.
At the same time, Mullen talked up plans to build new schools and housing for
the families of soldiers who he said will soon be able to stay here in large
numbers at US government expense. "Extending tours, bringing families, hardens
the commitment," he said in response to a question from a soldier about reports
that US troops would be going from here to serve in Iraq.
Mullen's remarks to troops give an image of increasingly easy living in an
environment that many US troops over the years have found rather forbidding.
Hassles with landlords, cultural differences and perceived anti-foreign
attitudes have had far more to do with placing South Korea low on a list of
desired GI postings than concerns about North Korean attack. The idea now is to
make duty in South Korea as desirable as posts in Europe, where three-year
tours are typical.
United States Army officers almost laughingly dismiss the suggestion that
perhaps North Korea may have its own plans for making life unpleasant if not
dangerous for American troops in the South. "I don't think KJI would be so
stupid as to do anything like that," said one officer, referring to the Dear
Leader by his initials. "He has enough problems where he is."
All of which would seem to increase the possibility of a North-South summit - a
step that would have to ease pressure for enforcement of sanctions imposed
after the North's nuclear test of May 25 even if Kim Jong-il did not oblige by
promising to abandon his nukes.
There is, however, one other obstacle to another inter-Korean summit. That is,
South Korea may insist that Kim Jong-il come to Seoul rather than the other way
around. He did, after all, promise a return visit to Seoul after hosting Kim
Dae-jung in June 2000. Kim Dae-jung, up to the time of his final illness last
summer, never stopped hoping that Kim Jong-il would drop by.
"First he has to come here," said a local editor, "but that's not going to
happen for a long time." The fact that Kim is believed to be recovering from a
stroke suffered more than a year ago and also has diabetes and other problems
is yet another reason for ruling out an inter-Korean summit, at least in Seoul.
On the other hand, South Korea does boast of some of the finest medical
facilities in Asia, and "medical tourism" ranks as a major incentive for
attracting foreign visitors. The Korean National Tourist Organization has a
whole display on the topic at its headquarters in central Seoul. How about Kim
Jong-il as medical tourist - secretly attended by the South's top doctors in
between photo-ops with President Lee at the Blue House?
Donald Kirk, long-time correspondent in Asia, is the author of
Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine, published this month by Palgrave
Macmillan, NY and UK.