South and North Korea are expected to discuss ways to advance their relations at this week's summit, but tough international sanctions will likely limit their efforts toward economic cooperation, experts said Thursday.
An improvement of inter-Korean relations is one of three key agenda items for the summit Friday; North Korea's denuclearization and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula are the other two.
The summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un comes after more than a year of heightened tensions sparked by the North's nuclear and missile provocations. The North is under multi-layered international sanctions.
"The leaders are likely to deal with the issue of reunions of war-separated families, humanitarian affairs and social and cultural exchanges," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University.
"But it would be difficult to expect any big agreements on economic areas as the current sanctions regime limits wiggle room," he added.
The government earlier said that Seoul is exploring ways to sustainably improve ties within the limits set by the sanctions.
"Economic cooperation is not the main agenda for the summit," a ranking government official told reporters Wednesday. "Inter-Korean economic cooperation would be possible only after certain conditions are met and there is progress on North Korea's denuclearization."
When the two Koreas held summits in 2000 and 2007, they unveiled landmark joint declarations on reconciliation.
In particular, the 2007 agreement contained ways to boost economic cooperation, including an expansion of a joint industrial complex in the North Korean city of Kaesong and the launch of cross-border cargo railway service.
But Seoul is no longer allowed to provide massive economic benefits to North Korea due to international sanctions aimed at curbing inflows of hard currency to the regime.
Substantial agreements on economic issues will be impossible, but Moon and Kim could broadly exchange views on economic cooperation.
At the latest party meeting, Kim Jong-un unveiled a new strategic party line of focusing on the "socialist economic construction," effectively ditching his signature policy of simultaneously seeking nuclear and economic development.
Against this backdrop, the two sides are expected to focus on humanitarian issues and civilian exchanges in non-political areas.
Top priority is likely to be placed on the issue of resolving families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, experts said.
At the high-level talks held on Jan. 9, Seoul and Pyongyang failed to agree to hold reunions for divided families.
Seoul puts priority on resolving the issue as more aging Koreans have passed away without being able to meet with their kin on the opposite side of the tense border.
About 55 percent of an estimated 131,530 South Koreans on the waiting list for reunions have died as of end-March, according to Seoul's unification ministry. The last reunion event was held in October 2015.
But in exchange for reunions, the North demands Seoul return 12 female North Koreans who worked at a restaurant in China and defected to South Korea en masse in 2016.
"North Korea has attached that condition for family reunions, but this can be resolved at the summit with Kim Jong-un ('s bold decision)," Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said in a report. (Yonhap)