August 11, 2007

August 11, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

The 2nd Summit between two Koreas

Yonhap reported that South Korea only informed the U.S. a few hours prior to the announcement, indicating Seoul is freelancing on peninsular issues and not coordinating with its key ally. U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow, have cautioned Seoul not to be overly eager in providing benefits to Pyongyang without imposing some conditionality to its largesse.

South Korean officials assured Washington that its engagement efforts would remain "one step behind the Six Party Talks process," but instead appear to be at least five steps ahead. It is unlikely that Seoul made a secret cash payment to induce Pyongyang to the meeting given the resultant scrutiny following revelations that the Kim Dae-jung administration paid at least $500 million to secure the 2000 summit. But Kim Jong-il never does anything without recompense and, therefore, it can be expected that the Roh Moo-hyun administration promised some inducements.

These could be promises of new developmental aid or expansion of existing South-North economic projects, such as the Kaesong special economic zone. President Roh has talked of a "Marshall Plan" for North Korea, overlooking the fact that the U.S. program to rebuild post-World War II Europe was initiated only after the demise of its dictatorial opponent. Then Minister of Unification Chung Dong-young promised economic benefits during his meeting with Kim Jong-il in mid-2005 which may have led to North Korea's return to the Six Party Talks a month later.

President Roh's objectives clearly are to secure a legacy and to influence the South Korean presidential election. Since there is perceived progress in the Six Party Talks, Seoul can't claim it is an attempt to jumpstart stalled nuclear negotiations. Multilateral working groups called for under the Beijing Agreement signed in February will meet in August with the next formal round of negotiations scheduled for September and a possible ministerial in September or October. President Roh's overzealous attempts to secure a legacy and influence the South Korean presidential election risks undermining multilateralefforts to secure North Korean denuclearization, straining Seoul's relationship with Washington, and, in the long-term, undermining the U.S.-South Korean deterrent capability.

A second summit will not directly affect the disposition of U.S. Forces Korea. But, the perception of progress during a Roh-Kim summit could match the unrealistic euphoria which gripped South Korea after the 2000 summit. This could increase pressure on Washington to prematurely normalize relations with Pyongyang and remove it from the state sponsors of terrorism list before North Korea has fulfilled its obligations under phase 2 of the Beijing agreement.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Chosun Ilbo