Handshake that could pave way for end of Korean War

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The Independent Online

The leaders of North and South Korea shook hands and toasted their success after pledging to seek a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, which could provide a powerful impetus to broader talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Kim Jong Il, the leader of the paranoid and almost hermetically sealed Communist North, signed a joint declaration yesterday with South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun, locking both countries into a series of political and economic steps that would help to ease the North's isolation.

The declaration signed at the end of a three-day summit – only the second since the end of the Korean War in 1953 – committed both states to "end the current armistice regime and establish a permanent peace regime". They also "agreed to co-operate to push for the issue of declaring the end" of the Korean War by staging a meeting of relevant states. Establishing a peace treaty to replace the armistice signed by China, the United States and North Korea would require the participation of all three states.

President George Bush has made support for a peace treaty conditional on North Korea totally abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

On Wednesday, in the latest sign of steady progress at six-party talks on a deal to solve the nuclear standoff, North Korean agreed to disable its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and to declare fully its nuclear programmes by 31 December.

Negotiations on a separate peace treaty could provide further inducement for North Korea to give up its militaristic nuclear ambitions, as well as keeping up the momentum at the six-party talks which involve both of the Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan.

Yesterday's pact was "another building block in the gradual expansion of relations" between North and South Korea, which still hopes for eventual reunification, said Paul Beijer, a former Swedish ambassador to Pyongyang who now advises his government on Korean issues. In their eight-point statement, the leaders "agreed to closely co-operate to end military hostility and ensure peace and easing of tension on the Korean peninsula". It also called for follow-up meetings at defence and prime ministerial level.

Other measures outlined in the joint statement, which should reduce tensions and reduce the likelihood of military incidents, include a pledge to set up a joint fishing zone. The fishing waters off Korea have been the site of regular "shooting matches", Mr Beijer noted. Last but not least, in addition to stepping up economic co-operation, the two leaders agreed to direct flights between Seoul and Mount Paektu, the North's tallest mountain near the Chinese border, which is of sacred importance to Koreans as the birthplace of their nation. According to the accepted narrative in North Korea, Kim Jong Il was born in a log cabin on the slopes of Mount Paektu. He was, in fact, born in Siberia where his father, Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea, was in exile in 1941.

Mr Kim, profiting from a rare opportunity to share a public platform with a foreign leader, scotched reports yesterday that he was ailing. "South Korean media reported that I have diabetes and even heart disease, but the fact is that is not the case at all," he said.

Although Mr Roh praised the summit outcome, he faced criticism in Seoul, where the main conservative opposition, the Grand National Party, called the joint declaration "insufficient". "It's very regrettable that the South and North Korean leaders didn't take any substantial measures or show their firm commitment to nuclear dismantlement and peace on the Korean peninsula," the party said.