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Doubts linger over Koreas mending ties

Upcoming U.S.-China summit draws attention regarding efforts to ease tensions on peninsula

With neither Koreas wanting another war, signs of peace and dialogue are brewing for the first time in months on the divided peninsula.

North Korea, which conducted two deadly attacks against South Korea in the past year, welcomed the New Year with a call for better ties with the rival South.

“The danger of war should be removed and peace safeguarded in the Korean Peninsula,” said the 2011 editorial jointly carried by Pyongyang’s state media Saturday. “If a war breaks out on this land, it will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust.”

While reacting cautiously to the renewed calls for better relations, the South Korean government assessed the editorial as showing Pyongyang’s “interest in resuming talks.”

“We note, however, that North Korea shifts blame onto us for the ties that worsened while highlighting the humanitarian projects and patience the North conceded last year,” the Unification Ministry here said in a statement, indicating lingering doubts over Pyongyang’s intentions.

Tensions between the two Koreas, which are technically still at war, reached their highest level in decades following two deadly attacks by North Korea.

Pyongyang apparently torpedoed Seoul’s 1,200-ton warship in March, claiming the lives of 46 sailors. It again struck a civilian-inhabited South Korean border island in November, killing four people and prompting Seoul and its traditional ally Washington to conduct massive joint military drills that lasted several days.
The New Year’s editorial published on the front page of North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun (Yonhap News)
The New Year’s editorial published on the front page of North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun (Yonhap News)

“North Korea is criticizing Seoul’s stern policy, while also accentuating the need for peace. Such a tone shows the North has not completely given up on mending ties with the Lee Myung-bak administration, possibly through a leadership summit,” said Cheong Seong-chang, fellow at the Seoul’s think tank the Sejong Institute.

The reclusive nation, going through a wobbly power transfer from ailing dictator Kim Jong-il to his young and inexperienced son, however, is likely to maintain a provocative attitude despite its call for peace, Cheong added.

“The Kim Jong-il regime apparently feels it can defuse internal tensions and secure loyalty toward the heir apparent through military provocations,” he said. “So prospects of an immediate resumption of the six-party talks or inter-Korean dialogue remain cloudy.”

Partners of the stalled multinational talks on Pyongyang’s denuclearization also remain widely split over how to deal with the communist state’s long-repeated contradictory attitude.

Noting Pyongyang’s past tactics of ratcheting up tensions to induce partners to provide it with aid or diplomatic benefits, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan maintain that the six-nation dialogue cannot resume at an early date.

The talks, also involving China and Russia, are viewed as one of the best tools to help ease tensions on the peninsula and have also been Pyongyang’s main source of outside aid.

The impoverished North, which suffered immense flooding last year and relies on outside assistance to feed its people, apparently wants to resume denuclearization talks with regional powers ― Washington in particular ― to secure food and fuel.

While Pyongyang’s historical allies China and Russia support an early restart of the negotiations, the U.S. and its two major Asian allies view resumption of the talks as “a reward for bad behavior.”

Taking a turn from his past stern policy toward Pyongyang, South Korea’s right-leaning President Lee Myung-bak recently said North Korea’s denuclearization should “inevitably be dealt with” through the stalled six-nation talks.

“We inevitably have to deal with North Korea’s denuclearization diplomatically through the six-party talks,” Lee said as he was being briefed by ministries of foreign affairs and unification on 2011 policies. “We must strengthen security and our military power, but also maintain efforts to achieve peace through inter-Korean dialogue.”

Unnamed officials and diplomatic sources are also confirming the renewed possibility of dialogue with North Korea.

“The government feels burdened about keeping up military tensions with the North,” a Seoul official said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The upcoming U.S.-China summit is also a sensitive issue for us.”

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Washington on Jan. 19, discussing, among other issues, ways of dealing with tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Having suffered several economic and diplomatic conflicts with Beijing last year, Washington will likely increase efforts to work together with the world’s second-largest economy in dealing with Pyongyang, analysts say.

“Although the U.S. is currently maintaining a tough stance, it could choose a different, more engaging method to defuse tensions this year,” a diplomatic source here said.

Seoul was faced with harsh international politics with China as well as Russia last year, unable to secure support from the two countries in condemning North Korea for its deadly attacks.

The lingering uncertainty of securing support from the two countries in the future is also becoming a burden for South Korea in maintaining its stern, unyielding position, another diplomatic source said.

“If we continue to remain negative toward dialogue, China and the U.S. may take the lead in resolving the pending issues on the peninsula, a scenario the government most fears,” another diplomatic source said. “The government is left to weigh its options.”

South Korea has long feared the scenario of being left on the sidelines in the debate over the North Korean nuclear program, which is closely linked to its national interests.

Viewing the U.S. as its most influential dialogue partner, North Korea has often demanded one-on-one talks with Washington, snubbing Seoul in the process.

Seoul will much more easily be able to accept dialogue should North Korea put into action its reported willingness to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors back into its nuclear complex and negotiate the transfer of 12,000 fresh nuclear fuel rods out of the country, analysts say.

Pyongyang reportedly delivered its willingness to resume the six-party talks to visiting New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in December.

Seoul and Washington said they did not give much credence to the promise as Richardson did not visit Pyongyang as an official envoy of the U.S.

“A dialogue can only be a dialogue when all sides are willing to talk and take action,” Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said in a recent meeting with reporters. “We have never once completely abandoned the dialogue card, but North Korea has to make relevant moves to make the talks happen.”

“I see many lingering difficulties until all partners come to an agreement to restart the six-party talks,” said Cheong of the Sejong Institute. “And with the power transition, North Korea will not immediately change its stance toward South Korea and could continue provocations.”

To prevent further provocations, possibly a third nuclear test, by the North, Seoul and Washington must not give up efforts toward dialogue, he said.

By Shin Hae-in (
Korea Herald daum