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Calls grow for inter-Korean talks

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Published : 2014-07-08 21:52
Updated : 2014-07-08 22:25

Calls are growing for inter-Korean dialogue as Pyongyang continues to make overtures toward Seoul, yet their bilateral communication channels and six-way denuclearization talks are showing no signs of regaining their vigor.

Seoul, Washington and Beijing have been ramping up diplomacy since late last year, seeking middle ground so that the six-nation forum can be reopened for the first time in about five years.

But the efforts were held back by the execution of the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in December, his regime’s threats of a fourth nuclear test and its ongoing show of force at sea, as well as stark differences between the six countries on the preconditions for restarting talks.

The two Koreas’ hard-won high-level dialogue has also been dormant since February. 
A handout photograph provided by the Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) visiting the Geumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang on Tuesday, to mark the 20th death anniversary of Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and the founder of the North Korean government. (EPA-Yonhap)

A recent series of conciliatory gestures by the communist state, however, is once again giving weight to the need for a fresh round of inter-Korean talks.

Unveiling its plans to send a cheering squad to the upcoming Asian Games in Incheon on Monday, the North called for an end to confrontation and a turnaround in cross-border ties for national reconciliation and unity.

It also displayed its opposition to relying on “external forces,” saying “all problems must be resolved among ourselves.”

The move followed a recent meeting in Gaeseong of an inter-Korean panel in charge of the operation of a joint factory park and an upsurge in exchanges between the two sides’ civic groups for humanitarian purposes.

Pyongyang’s latest argument was nothing new and was in line with Kim’s steadfast resolve to uphold his nuclear ambitions. But a rising number of experts and even officials are seen as calling for efforts to keep up communication so as to prevent further military provocations and facilitate the resumption of six-party talks.

“Having a principle such as demanding sincerity or preconditions is not a bad thing in terms of the nuclear issue but the two sides need a functioning dialogue channel, even behind the scenes if necessary, so that they can talk about humanitarian issues at least,” a former government official said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Robert Einhorn, who was special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control to the U.S. Secretary of State and a coordinator for Iran and North Korea sanctions until last year, recently criticized President Barack Obama’s so-called “strategic patience” policy.

“Even if prospects for complete denuclearization are remote, engagement could, at least in the near term, reduce the likelihood of dangerous North Korean provocations,” he wrote in The National Interest journal last week.

“The most effective way to test Pyongyang is through bilateral U.S.-DPRK exploratory discussions. … In the course of such bilateral discussions, the United States should seek to nail down the specific steps the North Koreans would be willing to commit to in the first few days of the resumed talks and the specific timeframes in which it would implement those steps.”

Seoul brushed off the North’s “special offer” last week to cease military drills and slander on both sides of the border, calling for a “sincere” resolve to forsake its nuclear program rather than a token peace offensive.

“We’re waiting for North Korea to return to the negotiating table with sincerity, so if the sincerity is confirmed we will not need to say no to a new round of high-level talks,” a senior official at the Unification Ministry told reporters on customary condition of anonymity.

Though no shift appears to be in the offing in President Park Geun-hye’s approach to the unruly neighbor, a raft of upcoming events may change things in the coming months, including this week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing and the pivotal July 30 parliamentary by-election here.

Many Seoul officials pinned high hopes on the incoming chief of the National Intelligence Service. President Park tapped Lee Byung-kee, a former deputy director of the spy agency and ambassador to Japan, for the post. Through the president’s trust in him and his practical views on key foreign and security policy, he would manage to put fresh vigor into Cheong Wa Dae’s National Security Council, which has been dominated by rigid, hard-line military commanders, they say.

At a confirmation hearing on Monday, Lee said he “personally thinks that there needs to be some change” in cross-border relations.

In August, the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, the region’s largest security conference, will bring together Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington and other key players in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se will likely have his first chance to encounter his newly appointed North Korean counterpart, Ri Su-yong.

“Now is the time to think up ideas and explore options until (the time) when things come together and we need to turn them into action,” an official at South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said, asking for anonymity.

By Shin Hyon-hee  (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)

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