The Big Question: Are North and South Korea working towards reunification at last?

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The Independent Online

Why are we talking about this?

Because a summit of the leaders of North and South Korea is taking place at the moment in Pyongyang – it's only the second summit ever between the North and the South, which technically remain at war, having never signed a peace treaty at the end of the Korean war. The Korean peninsula remains divided between the prosperous free-wheeling South and the impoverished hardline Communist North, whose leadership keeps an iron grip on its people and shocked its neighbours by conducting a nuclear test a year ago.

How significant is the meeting?

Both leaders would probably say very significant, although reunification of the divided peninsula remains a far-off goal. A joint statement to be released today could include plans for greater economic co-operation and set out concrete steps towards peace. South Korea's President, Roh Moo-hyun, said yesterday that he was "satisfied with the outcome" of the summit.

Any conclusion of a peace treaty, however, would require the participation of the US and China, which signed the original armistice with North Korea six decades ago. For Kim, the North's "Dear Leader", it provides a rare opportunity to be cast in the role of international statesman through high-profile public appearances. Mr Roh would also hope for a positive "bounce" from the summit, as he intends to secure his place in history only two months before presidential elections, which the rival conservatives are tipped to win.

Such meetings do provide an intriguing glimpse into one of the world's most secretive regimes. The "Dear Leader" revealed his own mindset, and the extent of his political isolation from the rest of the world, by expressing surprise that the South Korean President could not decide by himself whether to accept an offer to extend the summit by another day until tomorrow.

In fact, the talks are a bit of a sideshow to the much more important six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, the US and China, Russia and Japan, which struck a "grand bargain" in February providing for North Korea to shut down its nuclear programmes in exchange for diplomatic recognition, a million tons of heavy fuel oil and other aid. That's where the real peace is being decided.

What's happening on that front?

Quite a lot of progress. President George Bush yesterday welcomed the fact that as a result of the last round of six-party talks, North Korea had agreed a timetable to disable its main Yongbyon reactor and other nuclear facilities by 31 December, and would provide a "complete and correct" declaration of its nuclear programmes.

According to reports in the American press, Washington and Pyongyang also reached a "side understanding" that would lead to the removal of North Korea from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The North Koreans jumped the gun a month ago by announcing that the US had agreed to remove Pyongyang from the list – which also includes Syria, Iran, Cuba and Sudan – thereby ending its status as part of President Bush's "axis of evil".

Although the Americans denied the North Korean report, the whole issue of North Korea's sponsorship of terror is a key issue for Pyongyang, which desperately wants a normalisation of relations with Washington, and the lifting of financial sanctions.

It now seems, however that the Americans are no longer insisting on the "irreversible" dismantling of North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

Didn't America agree to a grand bargain before?

Yes, under President Bill Clinton, when the administration promised in 1994 to provide heavy fuel oil and two "safe" light water reactors if North Korea agreed to freeze its suspect nuclear programme.

That deal collapsed after the Republican-dominated Congress dragged its feet on the fuel oil, and the Bush administration accused North Korea of working to enrich uranium in order to build a bomb. Now, Mr Bush is keen to secure a foreign policy success, which could be provided by a successful outcome of the six-party talks, after signally failing to do so in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Middle East. Hence the US diplomatic flexibility in order to achieve the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

What's life like in the North?

Extremely grim. Much-needed food aid has been diverted by the leadership to the military, leaving the people vulnerable to the effects of flooding and famine. North Korea's ideological policy of juche, or self reliance, developed by the country's founder Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il, has led to almost total isolation from the outside world and condemned the people to lives of grinding poverty. Dissidents, or those who try to flee abroad, are confined to a gulag of penal labour camps. North Koreans are banned from using the internet and possessing mobile phones. But the regime's ideological brainwashing is so powerful that the people believe they are extremely lucky to be the subjects of Kim Jong-il.

So why is the world so worried about North Korea?

Mainly because of the nuclear threat and risk of proliferation, but also because of the long-range missiles that have been tested by the North. North Korea benefited from the Pakistani illegal "nuclear supermarket" of A Q Khan and has links to some of the world's more unsavoury regimes.

The North Koreans have also taken the notion of "dirty tricks" to the extreme by abducting Japanese citizens to be used in their spy training programme in the 1970s and 1980s. The disappearance of dozens of Japanese – five of whom have been returned by the North Koreans – continues to prevent Japan from agreeing to provide any aid for North Korea under the latest phase of the six-party agreement. Japan is insisting that North Korea must account for all of the abductees before diplomatic relations can be considered.

North Korea also earned its presence on the US list of state sponsors of terror after North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner in 1988, which exploded in mid-air, killing 115 people. It was an attempt to disrupt the Seoul Olympic Games. Washington has refused to remove North Korea from the blacklist over Pyongyang's continued refusal to hand over Japanese Red Army militants who hijacked a Japan Airlines jet during an internal South Korean flight in 1970, and were granted political asylum by the North.

Does North Korea have a bomb?

The North first boasted publicly in October 2005 that it had nuclear weapons. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea has enough plutonium for six nuclear bombs. But the UN weapons inspectors were expelled in 2002, just before North Korea broke out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in order to resume plutonium production, and they have only just been allowed to return.

Will Korea ever be reunified?

Yes...

* The Korean people on both sides of the demilitarised zone want it, and so do their leaders

* The big powers will come to see that, after Germany, it is not natural for the Korean nation to be divided as a result of war

* Reunification will come suddenly when the North collapses like the Soviet Union did

No...

* The political systems are too different, the social conditions too diverse and the mistrust too deep for reunification to happen

* North Korea has no intention of surrendering its nuclear weapons, which will lead to the continued presence of US troops on the border

* The US and Asian states have grown used to dealing with two separate countries

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