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North And South Korean Leaders Begin Talks

The leaders of North and South Korea have started discussions in the North Korean capital aimed at starting the two countries down a path to lasting peace. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, where substance is sharing the spotlight with symbolism.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun began Wednesday morning's meeting in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il with a gift, and polite small talk.

Mr. Roh presented the North Korean leader with several dozen South Korean films on DVD - a gift that political analysts describe as ironic, since North Korea bans its citizens from viewing such films. Mr. Kim, however, is reputed to be a fan of international film and to have a huge collection of movies.

President Roh thanked Mr. Kim for coming out to greet him personally Tuesday, when the South Korean leader arrived in Pyongyang. Mr. Kim responded with a rare public comment about his health.

Kim Jong Il says "I'm not a sick patient, and I don't need to spend all day loafing around the house."

There is persistent speculation that Mr. Kim is in poor health. Soon after that exchange, the two leaders began several hours of private discussions.

President Roh says he is looking for a joint declaration of peace to begin the process of formally ending the state of war between North and South Korea. A 1953 armistice halted three years of fighting after North Korea invaded the South. No permanent treaty was ever signed.

In Seoul, South Korean government spokesman Kim Jeong-seop said the two leaders have joint events planned for Wednesday, the second day of Mr. Roh's visit.

He says the two leaders will plant a tree together, using dirt and water from famous mountains in North and South Korea.

President Roh is expected to join the North Korean leader Wednesday evening at a performance of the North's Arirang festival. The mass dance and gymnastics spectacle has historically celebrated North Korea's military achievements. South Korean officials say Wednesday's performance has been modified.

Mr. Roh returns to Seoul on Thursday.

This is only the second meeting of the leaders of the two countries. The first, in 2000, led to increased contact between Seoul and Pyongyang, and to billions of South Korean dollars going to the North in aid and investment.

However, many regional security analysts, and South Korean citizens say Seoul's policy of engaging with the North has produced little benefit. They note that North Korea has not improved its human rights record and has built a nuclear arsenal, despite promises not to.

On Tuesday, officials in Washington said the United States has approved a draft agreement under which North Korea will identify and disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year. The agreement, negotiated at six-nation talks in Beijing, offers Pyongyang aid and other benefits for ending its nuclear programs.

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