SEOUL — A North-South summit planned for next month is becoming an election issue in South Korea, with the government and opposition at odds over what Seoul should seek to achieve.
The government, meanwhile, tried yesterday to dispel the idea of friction between Seoul and Washington, saying President Roh Moo-hyun’s public prodding of President Bush in Australia last week was simply the result of translation errors.
Mr. Roh announced Tuesday that a “peace regime” to replace the Korean War truce of 1953 will be the key agenda item at his summit with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang from Oct. 2 to 4.
U.S. Ambassador to Korea Alexander Vershbow announced yesterday that consultations on a peace treaty are under way between the United States and North Korea, though it will take time to negotiate.
At a press briefing last week after a bilateral meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney, Australia, Mr. Roh twice asked Mr. Bush to clarify his statements.
Observers interpreted the requests as a breach of diplomatic etiquette and symptomatic of the uneasy relationship between the liberal Mr. Roh and the conservative Mr. Bush.
But the presidential Blue House said yesterday that Mr. Roh was simply seeking clarification because of errors by the session’s interpreter, who did not fully translate Mr. Bush’s comments on the prospects for a peace treaty with North Korea.
“We agree with the White House explanation about what happened during the joint press briefing after their bilateral summit,” said a Blue House staffer. “They explained that something was lost in translation; we also have found that to be true.”
Even so, questions remain about Mr. Roh’s plans to discuss a peace treaty with the North Korean leader.
Firstly, Seoul is not a signatory to the Korean War armistice of 1953. Syngman Rhee, who was the South Korean president at the time, was dismayed that the truce would solidify the division of the peninsula and refused to sign. That left Seoul with no status to renegotiate the pact. The armistice signatories were Washington and Pyongyang, which also signed on behalf of Beijing.
Mr. Roh may open talks on the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the western maritime border between the two Koreas that was drawn up by the United Nations Command in 1953. Pyongyang has long demanded changes to the line, while conservatives in the South oppose any concessions.
Mr. Bush has said the North must dismantle its nuclear programs ahead of any peace agreement, but Mr. Roh has said he will not raise that issue.
Opposition presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak has demanded that the nuclear issue be central at the inter-Korean summit. But Mr. Roh maintained Tuesday that the issue could best be handled in the framework of the six-party talks, which also involve the United States.
Raising the matter at the summit “would not be helpful for the atmosphere of the talks,” he said. “I seem to be being urged to pick a fight.”
Mr. Roh also said inter-Korean economic cooperation would be a key issue in Pyongyang.
Analysts are skeptical that any significant progress can be made on a peace treaty at the summit, especially in light of Mr. Bush’s insistence that denuclearization come first.
Kim Sung-han, an international relations analyst at Korea University, suggested that Mr. Roh, who leaves office early next year, may be seeking to burnish his legacy.
“He probably thinks this might contribute to North Korea, which he thinks suffers from a siege mentality, so might facilitate [nuclear] disablement and dismantlement.”
“This is attractive to Roh’s key constituency, which lies to the left,” added a long-term American observer of Korea. “Some in the South feel left out, so it may be nice for them to think they are main players in a peace regime.”