A Change of Attitude by North Korea?

A rare summit on halting North Korea's nuclear program raises expectations on the Korean Peninsula.

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As a plan to declare and disable North Korea's nuclear facilities by the end of the year moved forward, the leaders of North Korea and South Korea met Tuesday in Pyongyang in a historic summit aimed at symbolizing a future of reconciliation between the two previous archenemies.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was driven in a motorcade across the heavily guarded frontier, pausing at the border to walk across in a dramatic gesture of peaceful intent. "This line will be gradually erased, and the wall will fall," he declared. Later Tuesday, he was greeted by the reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, with thousands of North Koreans cheering and waving paper flowers.

Roh will stay in the North Korean capital until Thursday in what is only the second North-South summit in the 59 years since the two countries were formed. The previous summit, in June 2000, featured Kim and then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who authored the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement and trade with the North that still shapes Seoul's approach. That shift led to sporadic and brief reunions of families separated by the North-South frontier, the opening of tourism to the North's resort at Mount Kumgang, the start of a joint industrial park at Kaesong, just inside North Korea, and work on road and rail links. Trade is also growing quickly, though it remains limited.

The first summit was tainted by revelations that South Korean officials made payments to the North to facilitate the meeting. And Kim Jong Il has never fulfilled his promise to make a reciprocal visit to Seoul.

Roh has bemoaned the lack of a formal peace treaty between North and South Korea, along with the other countries that fought in the 1950-53 Korean War. He says he wants to use this summit to push toward that goal, but his advocacy for immediate, warmer ties with the North has annoyed some Bush administration officials, who feel his approach is too soft.

While Roh is not expected to make more than a glancing reference to North Korea's nuclear program—an oversight in the view of critics—the atmospherics of the summit are no doubt improved by the advance of a plan to implement a deal that would send energy, economic, and political benefits Pyongyang's way in return for its verifiably abandoning nuclear activities.

A year ago, the talks that produced the plan appeared headed for failure after North Korea conducted a nuclear test blast that drew global condemnation. However, the Bush administration in the months that followed showed greater flexibility in dealing directly with Pyongyang and in responding to its demands on a now-settled banking dispute. This summer, the North shut down its nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon. And the Bush administration recently agreed to send a shipment of heavy fuel oil to the North as part of the denuclearization process, the first such shipment in years.

The top U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed President Bush on the "disablement" plan at breakfast Tuesday; the State Department announced the U.S. endorsement a few hours later.

The plan is expected to lay out specifics of disablement of North Korea's nuclear equipment by year's end. That is not the same thing as permanently dismantling or removing that equipment—the ultimate goal of the denuclearization process. U.S. officials have suggested that disabling the equipment should mean that it would take at least a year to restore it to working order.

The inter-Korean summit, meanwhile, is taking place outside of the six-country denuclearization framework.

Roh appears to be seeking badly needed political benefits from the summit, in addition to an easing of tensions. He leaves office early next year and is mired in a trough of unpopularity. His party appears very likely to be defeated by conservatives in December elections, and a summit deemed successful could improve both his party's prospects and his own legacy.

North Korea's Kim, for his part, is eyeing a summit that could be an opportunity to pocket more aid before the more antagonistic conservatives gain power in the South. He may also hope to hurt their political chances by being friendly with the current government.