SOUTH KOREA'S President Kim Young Sam yesterday offered to meet North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung, to discuss the North's nuclear programme. It would be the first meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas.
North Korea is still in dispute with the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the terms of possible nuclear inspections, and continues to refuse outright any opening up of the two most suspect sites in its main nuclear facility.
The offer of a summit marks another small diplomatic victory for the Pyongyang regime, since the South Koreans have up to now maintained that the nuclear issue must first be settled before a meeting of the two Korean leaders could take place. In a speech marking his first year in office, President Kim said he would not only meet his northern counterpart, but that he was also prepared to call off the contentious Team Spirit joint military exercises involving US and South Korean troops. In addition, he held out the offer of economic aid to Pyongyang once the nuclear issue is resolved.
For the past year North Korea has skilfully used the sole trump in its possession - the mystery surrounding its nuclear programme. Pyongyang has repeated feigned acceptance of nuclear inspections to gain concessions from the US and South Korea, only to pull out or impose unacceptable conditions. Currently, it is refusing to issue visas to IAEA inspectors until it gets written guarantees from the US that the Team Spirit exercises will be cancelled.
Even if the inspectors are allowed in next week - and the IAEA says it will refer the dispute to the UN Security Council if not - they will only be allowed to visit seven designated sites at the nuclear facility in Yongbyon, 60 miles from Pyongyang, the capital.
The inspectors will continue to be barred from two sites that are suspected of housing crucial evidence of a plutonium extraction programme.
Separate tests on nuclear by-products from Yongbyon conducted by the IAEA in its Vienna laboraties in 1992 have already shown. The biggest fear is that North Korea might have switched the core of its reactor in 1989, when it was shut down inexplicably for 100 days.
If it was removed, and a new core installed, the estimated 50 tons of irradiated uranium from the old core could have yielded enough plutonium for one or two atomic bombs. Such an operation would have left considerable waste, and the IAEA suspected this might have been housed in two mysterious buildings situated between the reactor and the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon.
When inspectors asked to check the two suspect sites, North Korea said they were military installations, and denied access.