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Optimism is growing about N. Korean nukes

A South Korean protester tears a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally Thursday against the summit between the leaders of the two nations.
A South Korean protester tears a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally Thursday against the summit between the leaders of the two nations.
Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's president expressed confidence North Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons after a summit with Kim Jong Il, where the two countries pledged Thursday to pursue a peace treaty and end their decades-long standoff across the world's last Cold War frontier.

They signed an accord promising a joint effort to implement previous agreements from six-nation arms talks "for the solution of the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula."

"Now that the highest leader of North Korea confirmed a clear commitment to the North's nuclear dismantlement, I don't see any problem in carrying it out," South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said after what was only the second summit ever between the two longtime foes.

The Koreas said they also "agreed to closely cooperate to end military hostility and ensure peace and easing of tension on the Korean peninsula." They "shared the view that they should end the current armistice regime and establish a permanent peace regime."

Earlier this week, North Korea went further than ever to scale back its nuclear ambitions by agreeing at arms talks with the United States and other regional powers to disable its main nuclear facilities and declare all its programs by the end of the year.

In the 54 years since an armistice ended the fratricidal Korean War, two profoundly different Koreas have evolved — a democratic South that is a world economic power buttressed by 28,000 American troops on its soil, and an impoverished, totalitarian North.

To reach a peace treaty, resolving the nuclear issue would be critical. But reunification of the peninsula would still remain a distant goal, unlikely to be achieved unless Kim were willing to release his grip on power. But the statement issued after the three days of talks, before Roh crossed the Demilitarized Zone by land on his way home, was vague enough not to tie either side's hands.

For now, they agreed on lesser issues: tourist flights from South Korea to North Korea's highest mountain; more trade, more reunions of families divided by the north-south split, even a joint cheerleading squad for next year's Olympic Games.

They also agreed to hold "frequent" summits and scheduled meetings between their defense and prime ministers in the coming months.

Establishing a peace treaty would require the participation of the U.S. and China, which also fought in the Korean War. President Bush told Roh last month that he was willing to formally end the war, but insisted it could only happen after Pyongyang's total nuclear disarmament.

Roh said he briefed Kim on Bush's willingness and Kim "expressed specific interest" in a formula that the South and the U.S. discussed about ending the war. Kim "asked the South to make efforts to realize it," Roh said, without revealing its specifics.

"I've returned with the assessment that we can anticipate finally getting out of the half-century shackles of the Cold War and greet an era of genuine peace if the North-U.S. relations improve, along with the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, and discussions on a peace regime begin in earnest," Roh said.

The Grand National Party, South Korea's main conservative opposition, had claimed the summit was a ploy to bolster Roh's allies ahead of a December presidential election, and it complained that the two leaders "didn't take any substantial measures or show their firm commitment to nuclear dismantlement and peace on the Korean peninsula."

At a lunch in Pyongyang at the summit's end, 65-year-old Kim denied having any health problems. "South Korean media reported that I have diabetes and even heart disease, but the fact is that is not the case at all," he said.

After both leaders signed the latest agreement, they shook hands before Roh then took Kim's right hand in his left and raised both their arms in the air like champion athletes.