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Have 2 Koreas Struck Deal Under Table?

By Richard Halloran

The wily leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, appears to have taken a giant step toward getting his nation accepted as a nuclear weapons state.

When the North and South Koreans announced last week that the president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, had been granted a summit meeting in Pyongyang late this month, immediate speculation held that Roh would try to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

Skeptical South Koreans, Americans and Japanese experienced in analyzing North Korea contended that instead, Kim would urge Roh to acknowledge that North Korea had become a nuclear weapons state, like India and Pakistan.

A former foreign minister of South Korea, Han Sung-joo, said at an academic conference in Honolulu that despite the apparent progress in negotiations intended to end Kim Jong Il's nuclear ambitions, "North Korea is on the way to being recognized as a nuclear weapons state."

Han said the critical question for South Korea, Japan, the U.S., China and Russia, which have been negotiating with North Korea in the six-party talks, was to determine "how we can live with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons."

Kim Jong Il has been seeking for years to have nations represented in the negotiations agree that his nation had been armed with nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan disclosed they had acquired nuclear weapons by testing them in 1998. North Korea tested a nuclear device in October 2006. As agreed in February 2007, North Korea has shut down its nuclear plant in Yongbyon, but nothing more.

In Asia, the political leader who travels to see another is often considered a supplicant before a superior in a position to demand concessions. Kim is expected to urge Roh to concede North Korea's right to retain nuclear arms, estimated at 10 to 12 weapons, in return for a pledge of peace.

That was underscored when Roh agreed to go to Pyongyang even though Kim had promised, during a summit in Pyongyang with President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, that he would make a return visit to Seoul. He has not kept that pledge, and Roh has brushed it aside.

A Roh concession to Kim on nuclear arms would most likely crack the unity of the five nations bargaining with North Korea in talks hosted by China in Beijing. Both South Korean and American sources said the U.S. was given only a few hours notice that the summit would be announced. Presumably, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow were given similar short notice.

Moreover, Han said, allowing North Korea to have nuclear arms will make South Korea and Japan, against which North Korea has aimed hundreds of missiles, even more dependent on the U.S. for security, especially the "nuclear umbrella." That would require an American retaliatory strike if North Korea attacked either South Korea or Japan.

In addition to concessions from South Korea, the summit is intended to shore up Kim's standing at home. Repeated rumors have wafted out of the hermit kingdom that Kim is either ill or that a group of dissenters has become dissatisfied with his rule, especially the mismanagement of the economy.

Kim has sought to dispel those rumors by visiting army posts and factories. Last week, he gave "on-site guidance" to workers at the Songjin Steel Complex. The official Korean Central News Agency said Kim urged them to display "revolutionary enthusiasm and creative ingenuity under the difficult situation," an oblique reference to North Korea's crumbling economy.

Further, Kim is evidently seeking to influence South Korea's presidential election in December so that a candidate favoring concessions to North Korea will be elected. Similarly, Koreans said Roh hopes to influence the campaign to help elect a candidate who would follow his policies. Roh is limited to one five-year term.

Choson Ilbo, a newspaper generally critical of Roh, opposed the summit meeting, asserting, "This is a presidential election scheme." The paper continued: "There's no national consensus, no transparency in the way it was arranged and no justification."

The South Korean government said a senior intelligence officer had set up the summit in two secret trips to Pyongyang recently. A presidential spokesman contended: "The spirit of the upcoming summit is reconciliation and transparency."

Choson Ilbo further asserted: "There's no way of knowing what kind of political deal has been struck under the table." That referred to reports of secret payments made by Kim Dae-jung to North Korea for his summit in 2000.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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