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N.K. attitude change bodes well

Past inter-Korean talks over sensitive issues often descended into acrimonious squabbles with North Korean officials spewing out verbal threats, such as turning Seoul into a “sea of flames,” and sometimes storming out of the conference room.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo speaks during his meeting with Son Gwang-ju, the new director of the Korea Hana Foundation, an organization to support North Korean defectors, in his office in central Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo speaks during his meeting with Son Gwang-ju, the new director of the Korea Hana Foundation, an organization to support North Korean defectors, in his office in central Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

The latest talks, however, indicated a notable change in the North’s attitude: Pyongyang, despite its incorrigible denial of provocations during and after the rare talks, consistently displayed its will to settle the issues, according to Seoul officials.

The change, indeed, boded well for the future of inter-Korean relations, which have been deteriorating with the North sticking to its nuclear program and setting off military provocations that, in turn, triggered stern reactions from the South, analysts said.

“The change in the attitude stemmed from Pyongyang’s desire for a turnaround in the current situation, in which sanctions persist while Seoul and Washington have raised pressure on it to give up its nuclear program,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University.

“The North appears to have judged that should it fail to make any turning point this time amid the escalating military standoff, it would not be able to disentangle inter-Korean ties and its relations with the international community in the coming years.”

After the four-day talks that ended Tuesday morning with a rare expression of regret from Pyongyang over the Aug. 4 land mine attack, a mood emerged for bilateral cooperation in the civil and public sectors, which would, in the long run, help Pyongyang shore up its economy.

During the protracted talks, the two sides agreed to hold further government talks on a regular basis to discuss pending issues that are expected to range from the long-stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan to the lifting of Seoul’s economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Although the two sides remain measures apart over how to settle those issues, their commitment to dialogue as a key means to tackle them marks a meaningful change for the better, observers noted.

While the outcome of the talks is being trumpeted here as a feat of Seoul’s “principled” approach toward the recalcitrant regime, Pyongyang was seen trying to downplay what could be seen as losses in the latest negotiations, apparently for internal propaganda purposes.

Holding a press conference after the talks, Hwang Pyong-so, director of the North Korean military’s General Political Bureau, who attended the talks, repeated the North’s denial of the mine provocation, saying the incident was fabricated by the South.

The conference itself drew attention in the South as it has been rare for the North Korean leadership to try to explain their position to the general public. While outcomes of talks with the South have often been announced via state-controlled media, it is unprecedented in the North for its chief negotiator to directly explain the process on television, observers noted.

After the message that was seemingly intended for a domestic audience, Hwang also said that it was a relief to see the two Koreas’ joint efforts having created fresh grounds to improve the relations.

South Korea, for its part, began preparation for the envisioned inter-Korean talks as agreed upon at the border talks. Seoul’s Unification Ministry also said that the May 24 sanctions, imposed after the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, could also be discussed at the talks.

As for the sanctions, the ministry reiterated that the North should take “responsible measures” to address the issue of the deadly sinking, should it want them to be lifted.

Meanwhile, the latest confrontation with the North allowed a broader peak into the regime under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Above all, Pyongyang revealed the set of initial military steps it would take in case of an armed conflict with its southern neighbor backed by the U.S.

After declaring what it calls a “quasi-state of warfare,” the North got its aerial defense radar up and running, and forward-deployed its artillery forces that put Seoul and its surrounding area within striking range.

The North was also spotted preparing for the launch of short- and mid-range missiles and transporting its special commandos toward the frontline regions. Its navy deployed some 70 percent of its submarines from their bases, while it also put into combat position a number of hovercrafts to be used to infiltrate South Korea’s border islands.

All these movements indicated that the North might try to launch surprise attacks to secure a victory in a rapid and decisive manner, should a contingency occur.

South Korean and U.S. military authorities are reportedly considering reflecting on their observations of the North’s military movements as they seek to reorganize their wartime operations procedures in line with shifts in the security environment.

Observers say Pyongyang’s latest employment of the brinkmanship tactic also yielded an unwanted phenomenon in the South: strengthening the unity among South Koreans, who have often been deeply divided over North Korea issues, and as a result pushing up public support for President Park Geun-hye.

The brinkmanship has also strained Pyongyang’s ties with Beijing, analysts say, given that the spike in cross-border tensions could have dampened the festive mood in China ahead of its ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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