Koreas put off rare summit due to floods in North

SEOUL (Reuters) - The two Koreas agreed on Saturday to postpone until Oct 2-4 the summit they had planned to hold this month because of the flooding that has killed hundreds of people and made more than 300,000 homeless in the North.

South Korea's Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung (L) and Vice Unification Minister Lee Kwan-se (2nd L) attend an urgent meeting for the postponed inter-Korean summit at the Unification Ministry in Seoul August 18, 2007. The two Koreas agreed on Saturday to postpone until Oct 2-4 the summit they had planned to hold this month because of the flooding that has killed hundreds of people and made more than 300,000 homeless in the North. REUTERS/Kim Seung-doo/Yonhap

The meeting, originally set for August 28-30 between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, will be only the second between leaders of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy and its impoverished, communist neighbor.

North Korea asked for the delay on Saturday “considering the urgency of the recovery work on the floods to stabilize the people’s lives” and suggested Seoul pick a convenient date, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement.

“The government has decided to accept the North’s proposal,” a spokesman for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said. “The government has notified the North of President Roh Moo-hyun’s visit to Pyongyang on October 2-4,” he added.

Pyongyang, in a message from the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s United Front Department, swiftly accepted the new dates, another official at the president’s office said.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency said Seoul had sent a message of sympathy for the flood damage. The North proposed the delay of “at least one month in connection with the above said flood that struck those areas all of a sudden”, KCNA said.

The summit will be the first in seven years between the two Koreas, which have been divided since the end of World War Two and are still technically at war.

Analysts have said Roh is likely to offer Pyongyang a massive economic package. South Korea’s central bank, pointing to floods and the international sanctions imposed after a nuclear test conducted last October, said this week that the North’s destitute economy contracted for the first time in eight years in 2006.

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A South Korean Unification Ministry official who had been scheduled to visit the North on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for the summit said the floods appeared to be the only factor behind secretive North Korea’s decision to delay the meeting.

“They probably tried to work on the flood damage in time for the summit but it must have been physically difficult,” Vice Unification Minister Lee Kwan-se was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

North Korea and the United Nations said on Friday that more than a week of heavy rain through August 14 had ruined crops and farmland in a country that does not produce enough food to feed itself, even with a good harvest.

The North’s official media has said more than 11 percent of its paddy and maize fields were submerged, buried or swept away as heavy rain saturated the lower half of the country.

The flooding has destroyed hundreds of bridges, thousands of buildings and washed away railroads.

The North’s government, its Red Cross and the military have been mobilized for recovery and relief work, KCNA said.

The North has shown footage of the flooding on its official TV broadcasts, with residents walking through waist-deep water in the capital Pyongyang, which would be the site of the summit.

South Korea is sending emergency aid worth 7.1 billion won ($7.5 million) to its neighbor.

“The government will be seeking to provide the emergency aid supplies that we already decided as swiftly as possible,” the president’s office said.

The United States, whose relations with North Korea are deeply strained by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, said on Friday it would give $100,000 to buy blankets, shelter materials, water and other items for victims of the floods.

South Korea’s weather agency said more rain was forecast for flood-hit areas in the North through this weekend.