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When North Met South: A Short History of Inter-Korean Summits

“This summit will not make any important decisions,” he said. “The South Korean government is between a rock and a hard place. It’s not in a position to discuss most of the issues which really matter. It’s kind of a preliminary event to pave the road for a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim are expected to hold the first-ever meeting between a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea sometime in late May or early June. An exact date and a location have not been announced.

Unlike the talks Friday at the DMZ, the past meetings between leaders of the Koreas were ends unto themselves. And each in its way helped prepare the two sides for Friday’s discussions.


Cheers for the 2000 summit meeting in Pyongyang. After the talks, the South sent aid and investment, and the North kept developing nuclear weapons. Credit Hulton Archive, Getty Images

A breakthrough, six years delayed

A meeting between the two sides almost happened in 1994, but it was canceled after the death of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea.

When the leaders of the North and South finally met in June 2000, North Korea was emerging from a famine that killed more than two million people. In the South, the former dissident Kim Dae-jung had been elected president. He called for an end to the “Cold War style” of relations in his 1998 inaugural address.

The meeting was a high point of his Sunshine Policy, which held that showering the North with warmth would help it ease out of isolation. The South sent hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer to the North each year.

There were other steps aimed at improving ties, including reunions for about 16,000 members of families divided by the war. A factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong and a resort area at Mount Kumgang, which opened in 1998, were developed with investment from the South.

Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, in part for his work toward reconciliation with North Korea.

But the North continued its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Even after it acknowledged that in 2002, the South kept sending aid. The Sunshine Policy, and the 2000 summit meeting in particular, fell under harsh scrutiny after it emerged that the South had paid the North $ 450 million before the talks.


Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, went to Pyongyang in October 2007 to meet with Kim Jong-il. Progressives like Mr. Roh were about to lose the next election, and he wanted to steer the future of the relationship. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A second meeting, and plans soon dropped

The second inter-Korean summit meeting occurred in 2007, near the end of the five-year presidential term of Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun. North Korea had conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, raising questions about what the South was getting for its aid.

With the likelihood of an electoral victory by conservative political rivals who were expected to end the Sunshine Policy, Mr. Roh saw the meeting as a chance to steer the future of the South’s ties with the North.

“It was clear his party was going to lose in a landslide, and he understood that the conservatives had a very different idea of how to deal with North Korea: pressure, sanctions and Cold War,” Mr. Lankov said. “In order to prevent that, he made a last-ditch effort to prevent a slide back to mutual hostilities. He went to North Korea to basically sign a lot of agreements about future economic development.”

The conservatives did win the subsequent election, and the Sunshine Policy was declared over in 2010. But projects outlined in 2007, then shelved, could be revived by Mr. Moon and Kim Jong-un, including plans to reduce the potential for conflict in the sea west of the Korean Peninsula, where deadly clashes between the two countries have taken place.

One other significant legacy from 2007 is Mr. Moon himself. He was chief presidential secretary to Mr. Roh and led preparations for his meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-il.

While Mr. Moon has been in office for less time than Kim Jong-un or even Mr. Trump, he has deep experience with the sort of issues he will face Friday, said Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist at the University of Western Australia.

“Moon Jae-in, whether you love him or hate him, he’s a South Korean president who is not naïve, who is highly experienced,” he said. “He saw the full arc of inter-Korean relations: naïve, Pollyannaish introduction, to deeply disenchanted antagonism at the end.”

Source: NYT > World

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