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 had been granted a summit meeting in Pyongyang late this month, immediate speculation held that Roh would try to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions.
Skeptical South Koreans, Americans, and Japanese experienced in analyzing North Korea contended that, instead, Kim would urge Roh to acknowledge that North Korea had become a nuclear weapons state.
A former foreign minister of South Korea, Han Sung-joo, said at an academic conference in Honolulu that despite the apparent progress in negotiations intended to end Kim Jong-il's nuclear ambitions, "North Korea is on the way to being recognized as a nuclear weapons state."
Han said the critical question for South Korea, Japan, the US, China and Russia, which have been negotiating with North Korea in six party talks, was to determine "how we can live with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons."
Kim has been seeking for years to have nations represented in the negotiations agree that his nation 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 last October. As agreed in February, 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. Kim is expected to urge Roh to concede North Korea's right to retain nuclear arms, estimated at 10 to 12 weapons, in return for a pledge of peace.
That was underscored when Roh agreed to go to Pyongyang even though Kim had promised, during a summit in Pyongyang with then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 2000, that he would make a return visit to Seoul. He has not kept that pledge and Roh has brushed it aside.
A Roh concession to Kim Jong-il 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 South Korean and US sources said Washington was given only a few hours notice that the summit would be announced. Presumably, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow were given similar short notice.
Moreover, Han said, allowing North Korea to have nuclear arms would make South Korea and Japan, against which North Korea has aimed hundreds of missiles, even more dependent on the US for security, especially the "nuclear umbrella."
That would require a US 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 Kim Jong-il's standing at home. Repeated rumors have wafted out of the hermit kingdom that Kim Jong-il is either ill or a group of dissenters have become dissatisfied with his rule, especially the mismanagement of the economy.
Kim Jong-il 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 Kim Jong-ilurged them to display "revolutionary enthusiasm and creative ingenuity under the difficult situation," an oblique reference to North Korea's crumbling economy.