South Korea and the U.S. have dismissed North Korea’s proposal for “unconditional talks” as insincere, insisting actions still had to be made ahead of any kind of dialogue.
Nuclear envoys of Seoul and Washington agreed Wednesday that peace talks between the two Koreas should precede the resumption of the six-party denuclearization negotiations.
The reclusive North made the rare proposal through an official statement just hours later.
North Korea, which ratcheted up tensions to the highest level in decades via two deadly attacks against South Korea last year, had also called for better ties with Seoul in its New Year’s editorial.
“We call for an unconditional and early opening of talks between the authorities (of the two Koreas),” North Korea had said in a statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency.
The Unification Ministry here, which handles affairs with Pyongyang, called the proposal “insincere” and made no move to officially respond.
“In order for us to accept the proposal as sincere and real, North Korea has to first apologize for its provocations and take concrete steps toward denuclearization,” Lee Jong-joo, vice spokesperson of the ministry said.
Tensions have been remaining high between the two Koreas ― technically still at war as their 1950-53 conflict ended in armistice ― since Pyongyang torpedoed Seoul’s warship and bombed a border island last year. South Korea has been demanding an apology for the attacks that killed dozens of people, including two civilians, but Pyongyang either denies responsibility or blames acts on Seoul’s “preemptive moves.”
But North Korea, which suffered serious flooding of its farmland last year has apparently become eager for the food and fuel it will likely receive once stalled multinational nuclear talks restart.
The talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia, have been suspended since late 2008, when Pyongyang left the negotiating table and conducted a second atomic test.
It has been a typical pattern of behavior for the reclusive communist state to escalate provocations before returning to peace talks to maximize its negotiating power and induce partners into giving it more aid.
Washington also expressed skepticism toward Pyongyang’s proposal.
“We’re open to dialogue, but it’s not just for North Korea to say, ‘OK, fine, we’ll come talk.’ There has to be an appropriate context,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
“We would like to see dialogue between North and South Korea. We are open to a resumption of six-party negotiations,” he added. “Should North Korea demonstrate that seriousness of purpose, we will respond accordingly.”
Despite the tough rhetoric, the longstanding allies appear to be increasingly aware of the need of peace talks to prevent the unpredictable and impoverished state from further provocations or nuclear activities.
The U.S. and South Korea have been negative toward resuming the six-party talks for months, viewing them as a reward that will secure aid for the growingly provocative North.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had also signaled a softening stance toward talks with the North in his New Year’s speech saying “the door for dialogue is still open should North Korea exhibit sincerity.”
Meeting with his counterpart Wi Sung-lac in Seoul, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth agreed inter-Korean talks should come before the six-party negotiations, while also noting the grave danger of Pyongyang’s recent uranium enrichment program, an official here said.
Ahead of the Jan. 19 summit between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, Bosworth will visit Beijing and Tokyo to fine-tune the terms of resuming the six-nation talks.
China, North Korea’s last-remaining ally and key financial sponsor, has differed with Washington and Seoul over how to deal with Pyongyang, calling for an immediate resumption of the aid-for-denuclearization talks.
Noting the urgency in Pyongyang’s recent proposal, local experts warned the communist state may turn tough again should its proposal go ignored.
“The statement tells us that North Korea is clearly shifting position toward dialogue,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at Seoul’s Sejong Institute. “The fact that North Korea proposed talks between officials of the two sides indicates it may have come up with answers to our demands.
“I believe our government must prepare various scenarios and react upon them so as not to make the North feel ignored and push it toward further provocations,” he said.
By Shin Hae-in (firstname.lastname@example.org)