Koreas agree to hold first North-South summit

Six decades of military and political tension to be challenged in historic talks between democracy and Communist state
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The Independent Online

The last armed confrontation of the Cold War came a step closer to being resolved yesterday when the presidents of North and South Korea agreed to meet at the first summit meeting between the divided countries.

In simultaneous announcements in both capitals, the two sides said that President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and the mysterious North Korean hereditary leader, Kim Jong Il, will meet in Pyongyang between 12 and 14 June this year. If the meeting does materialise, it will be the first since the postwar division of the peninsula between the Stalinist North and the American-dominated South in 1945, and the Korean War that ended eight years later.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification said in a statement in Seoul: "The South-North summit will be a crucial moment in the history of the divided nation and may serve as the starting point for... renunification. [It] will contribute to liquidating the history of division, and restoring the homogeneity of the Korean people."

But before that it will also provide a political boost to Mr Kim, whose Millennium Democratic Party faces parliamentary elections on Thursday. The summit was denounced as a cynical election ploy by the opposition Grand National Party. "No regime in history has turned to such a blunt and shameless trick to win an election," the GNP said.

Long after the end of the Cold War in Europe, Korea remains a source of military and political tension, one of the most highly militarised and potentially unstable places in the world. Two million troops face one another across the demilitarised zone, including 37,000 Americans. The United States is believed to have nuclear weapons stationed in the peninsula and since 1994, when a nuclear reactor programme was revealed, it has been suspected that North Korea has a handful of nuclear warheads too.

For 55 years, both sides have engaged in a propaganda war, which has frequently led to violent incidents, to the alarm of neighbouring countries. In 1998, North Korea fired a rocket over northern Japan. Last year, North and South Korean ships exchanged fire in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea remains the most closed and bizarre country in the world, with an impenetrably secretive and oppressive government led by Kim Jong Il, son of the founding president Kim Il Sung, who is worshipped in an official cult. But since 1995, the North has been stricken by a series of natural disasters and an economic crisis that is believed to have left hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of people dead from starvation.

In the past few months, the need for international assistance appears to have stimulated a number of diplomatic initiatives, of which yesterday's announcement is the most startling. North Korean diplomats have recently held talks with Japanese and American counterparts. Earlier this year, the country established diplomatic relations with Italy. And since Mr Kim, a radical democrat and former dissident, became South Korean President in 1998, there has been an improvement in relations between the two sides.

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, called the South Korean Foreign Minister, Lee Joung Binn, yesterday to convey strong support for the summit. Her spokesman, James Rubin, said Ms Albright offered to co-ordinate with South Korea to ensure the successful of the summit.

The two sides are due to meet to discuss the summit agenda later this month and there is still much that could go wrong. In 1994, a summit was agreed, but it was cancelled after the death of Kim Il Sung. The first meeting would focus on economic co-operation; after that the idea would be to reduce military tensions and finally sign a peace treaty to bring the Korean War officially to an end.