Denuclearisation will not be on the agenda when Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea’s president, travels to North Korea in October.
Mr Roh said he would not pursue the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme when he holds his long-awaited summit with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on October 2-4.
Mr Roh, who firmly believes that establishing peace on the Korean peninsula is more important than denuclearisation, will use the meeting to seek to lay the groundwork to officially end the Korean war.
His comments underscore the differences of opinion and approach between Seoul, which is pushing for rapid normalisation, and Washington, which is focused on denuclearisation.
“The declaration of the end of the Korean war and a peace regime of the Korean peninsula are the core agenda items of the inter-Korean summit talks,” Mr Roh said on Tuesday, according to Yonhap news agency.
“Many people emphasise the importance of the North Korean denuclearisation. Objectively speaking, the nuclear issue is in the midst of being resolved at the six-party talks. More important is the next stage, or the establishment of peace,” the president said.
The Korean war ended in 1953 with a ceasefire, meaning the two Koreas technically remain at war. A treaty to end the war would require the signatures of China and the US, which respectively helped the North and South.
The issue of a peace treaty led to a testy exchange between Mr Roh and George W. Bush, his US counterpart, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Sydney in early September.
The South Korean leader, who leaves office in February, twice pushed Mr Bush to be “clearer” about his intention to normalise relations with Pyongyang. The US president, visibly bristling, responded that would only happen “when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programmes and his weapons”.
Both sides labelled the exchange a “misunderstanding”, with Mr Roh’s spokesman calling Mr Bush’s interpreter “inexperienced”.
Mr Bush is understood to have agreed privately with Mr Roh to work towards a full peace treaty with North Korea – probably starting soon if Pyongyang disables its nuclear infrastructure – but refused, in spite of Mr Roh’s prompting, to make such a declaration in public.
Efforts to take Pyongyang down the road to denuclearisation are proceeding apace, with a team of US experts crossing from South to North on Tuesday to survey nuclear facilities.
The inspections “should set the stage for the next phase of disabling”, said Sung Kim, the head of the US team.
The six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme will resume in Beijing in mid-September.