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Questions Linger Over Secret Talks on Inter-Korean Summit

Questions Linger Over Secret Talks on Inter-Korean Summit

Posted December. 22, 2009 14:03,   


The South Korean government is known to have used official and unofficial channels with North Korea to discuss holding an inter-Korean summit this year. Several questions remain unanswered, however.

Experts in and outside of the central government in Seoul are raising five questions.

① How many times did South Korean Labor Minister Yim Tae-hee meet North Korean officials?

Yim reportedly met Kim Ki Nam, secretary of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party, when Kim visited Seoul in August to attend the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung. Yim also held talks in mid-October with Kim Yang Gon, the head of the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, in Singapore.

A ruling camp source in Seoul said, “If we look at the records of Minister Yim’s overseas trips before the rumors over his contact with North Korean officials in Singapore circulated, we can find many meaningful discoveries,” hinting at the possibility of additional contacts.

According to records on Yim’s overseas trips he submitted to the National Assembly in September before his confirmation hearing, he traveled overseas five times (once to the U.S., and twice each to Japan and China) in as many months from April, when he resigned as the ruling Grand National Party’s policy committee chairman, to September.

These records suggest that he might have contacted the North in Southeast Asia while waiting for transit flights.

② Competitive relations between unofficial and official routes?

Voices in the ruling camp say Yim, who spearheaded dialogue with the North through October, handed over negotiations to the Unification Ministry from November possibly because of a power struggle. Officials at the ministry and the National Intelligence Service were reportedly unhappy over the unofficial contacts led by Yim.

Others say Yim’s meeting with North Korean officials in Singapore was made public to certain media outlets in late October, reflecting the negative sentiment of his opponents. The role of South Korean intelligence remains unknown throughout this process, however.

③ Why did the ministry’s relations with the North turn sour?

South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek reportedly made stronger demands than Yim over contentious inter-Korea summit agenda, including inclusion of the North’s nuclear program and South Korean POWs and abductees in the North. It is uncertain why Hyun suddenly wanted stronger conditions and risked the collapse of negotiations, and what the new conditions were.

Nevertheless, Hyun and Yim apparently seem to disagree on these issues.

④ Does the U.S. want an inter-Korean summit?

What did a senior U.S. State Department official mean when he said Oct. 14 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il invited President Lee Myung-bak to Pyongyang? At that time, Washington was discussing direct dialogue with Pyongyang via their New York channel.

Some suggest a conspiracy theory in which Washington intentionally leaked the information due to the fear that if an inter-Korean summit took place, it would have fewer bargaining chips to use vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

⑤ How has President Lee’s intent changed?

President Lee reportedly intended to discuss the North’s nuclear program in the inter-Korean summit, and take back South Korean POWs and abductees on his return home. Discussion on the summit seems to have been held in secret between by South Korea’s power elite led by the president.

Other questions are when President Lee considered holding the summit and how this plan has changed.

kyle@donga.com polaris@donga.com