Two Koreas approach summit warily

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NORTH and South Korea agreed yesterday that their two presidents would hold their first-ever meeting on 25 July in Pyongyang. The last obstacle was removed when South Korea dropped its demand that the date of a second summit in Seoul should be fixed in advance. It has now agreed that this can be discussed in Pyongyang.

The US, Japan and China all welcomed news of the first encounter between the leaders of two nations technically still at war, but what they would talk about at the summit was unclear yesterday. A South Korean official said both sides were avoiding the question of drawing up an agenda, which would simply emphasise their radical disagreement on almost every potential topic. It remains possible that the historic meeting will be derailed by preliminary bickering, as happened during a previous thaw in relations in 1990.

The summit was proposed by the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, after talks earlier this month with the former US President, Jimmy Carter. Mr Carter's visit to Pyongyang brought a temporary easing in the crisis caused by North Korea's suspect nuclear programme, with Washington agreeing to suspend its call for sanctions after North Korea said it would freeze significant parts of its nuclear development. Senior American and North Korean officials will meet in Geneva next week for wide-ranging talks, in which the US is reported to be ready to discuss economic aid and the possible establishment of diplomatic relations if the North Koreans can allay concern over their nuclear activities.

Seoul is nervous that the US will not insist on a full nuclear accounting from Pyongyang, but it is unlikely that the North Koreans will be prepared to discuss nuclear matters with South Korea's President Kim Young Sam, whom they regard as a puppet of the Americans. Four years ago the last attempt to hold a summit foundered mainly on Seoul's insistence that the nuclear question had to be aired.

'This remains the most important topic for us,' said the South Korean official, 'but the North might insist that it wants to deal with the matter exclusively in its talks with the United States.' Any statement by Pyongyang that the nuclear question was outside the scope of the summit could lead Seoul to reconsider its position, he said, adding: 'We have already made a major concession in agreeing to go to Pyongyang first without any commitment on having another meeting in Seoul. We know that the North will portray this as President Kim Young Sam coming to pay his respects to their Great Leader.'

In 1990 Seoul sought to build confidence between the two Koreas by proposing a series of practical measures, such as family exchanges across the 49th parallel, while the North insisted that an elaborate set of principles had to be agreed first. 'There may be a similar attempt next month to announce some grandiose design,' said the official. The main importance of the summit would be symbolic, he added. 'Pyongyang considers it a sideshow to its talks with the US in Geneva and New York. I don't think the North Koreans see it as important except as propaganda, paving the way to getting what they want from the Americans. A lot will depend on next week's Geneva meeting. If it goes well, it will further hopes for the summit.'

In 1992 North and South Korea signed a declaration that the peninsula should become nuclear-free, but the agreement was submerged in Pyongyang's fight to prevent full inspection of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear arm of the United Nations.