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Allies urge N.K. to clear way for inter-Korea talks

As regional powers are coming together on the terms of restarting stalled peace talks with North Korea, the outcome appears to be lying in the hands of the nuclear-armed state which clearly has the most to gain through the dialogue.

Members of the aid-for-denuclearization talks have been engaged in a flurry of diplomacy this month, discussing the best solution to the high-running tensions between the two Koreas and Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear ambitions.

North Korea, who is technically still at war with Seoul as their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, conducted two deadly attacks against a South Korean warship and a border island last year, ratcheting up tensions to the highest level in decades.

South Korea, which had dozens of sailors and two civilians killed, has been demanding Pyongyang make a sincere apology to restore relations, a critical condition to restart larger-scale talks with Seoul as well as the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

North Korea, going through an unstable power transfer from its ailing dictator Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, is in apparent need of outside aid of food and fuel to defuse complaints from its hunger-stricken people.

The Kim Jong-il regime, however, has been reluctant to admit responsibility in attacking Seoul and has not taken any action to prove its willingness to disarm as it previously agreed under a 2005 pact with dialogue partners.

Visiting Seoul Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Pyongyang to back off recent provocation against South Korea and demonstrates it is willing to bargain in good faith.

“When or if North Korea’s actions show cause to believe negotiations could be productive or conducted in good faith, then we could see a return” to the six-party disarmament talks, Gates said, adding diplomacy is worthwhile starting with direct talks between the two Koreas.

A visiting Japanese foreign minister echoed Washington’s position that the two Koreas must first get together and solve their own issues before the six-nation denuclearization talks can restart.

“Dialogue with North Korea should first be held between the South and the North,” Seiji Maehara told a press conference after talks with South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan. “For dialogue with North Korea, the North should demonstrate through specific action its sincere willingness to carry out its own commitment to denuclearization.”

In a recent interview with a U.S. media outlet, Chun Young-woo, South Korea’s senior presidential secretary for foreign and security affairs, repeated “there will be no talks until North Korea comes clean” on the attacks last year.

The provocations in March and November “showed the real North Korea, instead of the North Korea the world hopes to see,” the senior official was quoted as saying.

Emphasizing that Seoul “is in no need and has no plans” to rush into talks with Pyongyang, Chun added that denuclearization was the only solution for the impoverished state to secure enough outside assistance for survival.

During his meeting with Gates, Seoul’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said his country continues to “feel under attack,” citing analysts’ view that North Korea is likely to conduct more provocations this year.

Having restored a cross-border communication channel with North Korea last week, South Korea is waiting for Pyongyang to make “even a minimum move” to convince its rival there will not be further provocations and it sincerely wants to mend ties, a diplomatic source here said.

“We have been fooled by the North’s contradictory attitude many times in the past, which resulted in the attacks last year,” the source said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The government is firm not to buy North Korea’s words unless any of them is put into action.”

Starting with its New Year’s editorial, Pyongyang has been increasing peace gestures toward Seoul, calling for Red Cross talks the Seoul government views as “a request for aid.”

However, experts here claim Seoul will be pressured by regional powers to change its position sooner or later even if North Korea does not yield to its demand.

Washington, fearing the rising risk of war between its traditional ally South Korea and the nuclear-armed unpredictable North Korean regime, has been increasing efforts to coordinate with China conditions for new peace talks with Pyongyang.

China, the host of the six-party talks and North Korea’s historical ally, has been snubbing international pressure to condemn Pyongyang for its deadly attacks against Seoul and continues to call for an immediate resumption of the six-party talks.

While emphasizing Beijing’s role as a break to Pyongyang’s aggressions and nuclear ambitions, the U.S. clearly recognizes the need of improving ties with the world’s second-largest economy and so may soften its stance toward North Korea, analysts say.

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Washington on Wednesday.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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