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 South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was granted a summit meeting in Pyongyang late this month, immediate speculation held Mr. Roh would try to persuade Mr. Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions.
Skeptical South Koreans, Americans, and Japanese experienced in analyzing North Korea contended that, instead, Mr. Kim would urge Mr. Roh to acknowledge that North Korea had become a nuclear weapons state, like India and Pakistan.
Former South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said at an academic conference in Honolulu that despite the apparent progress in negotiations to end Kim Jong-il's nuclear ambitions, "North Korea is on the way to being recognized as a nuclear weapons state."
Mr. 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 sought for years to have nations represented in the negotiations agree that North Korea 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. Mr. Kim is expected to urge Mr. Roh to concede North Korea's right to retain nuclear arms, estimated at 10-12 weapons, in return for a pledge of peace.
That was underscored when Mr. Roh agreed to go to Pyongyang though Mr. 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 Mr. Roh has brushed it aside.
A Roh concession to Mr. 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 Korean and American sources said the United States was given only a few hours notice that the summit would be announced. Presumably, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow were given similar short notice.
Moreover, Mr. 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 United States 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 Mr. Kim's standing at home. Repeated rumors have wafted out of the hermit kingdom that Mr. Kim is either ill or a group of dissenters have become dissatisfied with his rule, especially mismanagement of the economy.
Mr. 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 Mr. Kim urged them to display "revolutionary enthusiasm and creative ingenuity under the difficult situation," an oblique reference to the crumbling economy.
Further, Mr. Kim evidently seeks to influence South Korea's presidential election in December so a candidate favoring concessions to North Korea is elected. Similarly, Koreans said Mr. Roh hopes to influence the campaign to help elect a candidate who would follow his policies. Mr. Roh is limited to one five-year term.
Choson Ilbo, a newspaper generally critical of Mr. 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 by Kim Dae-jung to North Korea for his summit in 2000.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.