SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea and North Korea said today that their leaders will hold a summit in June, marking the biggest diplomatic breakthrough in half a century of conflict.
The meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il, would be the first between leaders of the two states since the Korean peninsula was divided into the communist North and the U.S.-backed South in 1945.
The stumbling blocks are many. The agenda has yet to be decided and the two sides are far apart on a number of weighty issues, including the permanent deployment of 37,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea to guard against any threat from the North.
But Japan quickly praised the planned meeting as having potentially ''epoch-making significance.''
''Our government welcomes this summit and totally supports it,'' said Japan's foreign minister, Yohei Kono. ''We strongly expect this meeting will lead to further progress in a dialogue between the South and the North, and to easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.''
China, which has long been North Korea's main ally in the region, said it supports the summit. Zhu Bangzao, spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying he hopes the meeting can achieve positive results.
In Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Joung-Binn today to convey her strong support for the summit. Albright's spokesman, James P. Rubin, said a direct dialogue is considered ''central to the achievement of peace and stability'' on the peninsula.
In simultaneous announcements, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed on the June 12-14 summit in the North Korean capital Pyongyang to promote exchanges, reconciliation and peaceful unification. The two countries fought a 1950-53 war and never signed a permanent peace treaty.
''The agreement is an opportunity for bringing development and prosperity to the nation and ensuring hope for peace on the Korean peninsula,'' Park June-young, South Korea's chief presidential spokesman, quoted his president as saying.
Park said Kim was surprised that impoverished North Korea, which has long denigrated the South as a U.S. puppet and had shunned appeals for top-level talks, agreed so quickly to his proposal for a summit.
The agreement followed a series of secret contacts in China as well as upbeat statements by top South Korean officials.
''Both sides decided to have a preliminary contact to discuss procedural matters'' later this month to prepare for the summit, said the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's foreign news outlet.
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