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Seoul cautious over N. Korea call for peace

While noting North Korea’s renewed willingness to resume the long-stalled talks with South Korea as well as regional partners, the Seoul government appears cautious not to become too optimistic about the unpredictable state’s change of attitude.

North Korea welcomed the New Year on Saturday with an editorial calling for improved ties with South Korea, in its first mention of peace since attacking a Seoul warship and a border island last year.

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

Despite its calls for better ties, Pyongyang also maintained a tough rhetoric, warning its military is ready for “prompt, merciless action” against its enemies, the part which prompted the Seoul government to vow “continued military readiness.”

In an analysis of the editorial, South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with the North, said Pyongyang has shown “interest in resuming dialogue,” but also noted it “shifted blame” onto Seoul for the relations that worsened due to its own provocations.

The ministry also took note of the communist state’s emphasis on humanitarian aid, saying it may continue to create conflicts among the general South Korean public by inducing groups that oppose to their conservative government’s stern policies.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry openly suspected North Korea’s willingness to defuse tensions.

“I cannot help but doubt the authenticity of North Korea’s intentions to work on resolving tensions, especially seeing from the fact it also emphasized military readiness in the same editorial,” a senior ministry official said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Pyongyang apparently torpedoed South Korean warship Cheonan in March and bombed the Yeonpyeong Island in November. 
(Yonhap News)
(Yonhap News)

The latter attack, which also caused civilian casualties, resulted in Seoul halting a planned shipment of aid and vowing joint military deterrence with traditional allies, further isolating the impoverished North.

Pyongyang mentioned its economic goals ahead of all other targets in its New Year editorial for the second consecutive year, indicating the growing urgency to deal with economic hardships as it goes through an unstable power transfer, the Unification Ministry here also assessed.

North Korea has designated 2012 as the year it becomes a “powerful and prosperous nation,” an unlikely goal amid ongoing poverty as well as political instability.

Incumbent leader Kim Jong-il hopes to secure loyalty and stability for his youngest and inexperienced son who will soon take over the regime, an aspect that may push the reclusive state to continue military provocations, while also trying to rejoin talks with regional powers, analysts say.

Although North Korea has often acted contradictory to the resolutions unveiled in its New Year editorials, this year’s message drew keen attention by dialogue partners who are in a tug-of-war over how to control the North’s growing belligerence.

As Pyongyang has indirectly repeated its hopes of rejoining the multinational talks aimed at its denuclearization, discussions are likely to escalate over when to resume the stalled talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

While Seoul, Washington and Tokyo view the resumption of negotiations as “a reward” for North Korea’s bad behavior, Beijing and Moscow claim the talks should restart to defuse tensions on the divided peninsula.

In a largely softening stance toward dialogue, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak also emphasized peace in a nationally televised New Year’s address over the weekend.

“I have faith that we can secure peace on the Korean Peninsula this year,” he said.

Talking to his ministers of unification, foreign affairs and defense in the last week of 2010, the right-leaning president said North Korea’s denuclearization should “inevitably be dealt with” through the six-nation talks, underscoring the need to resume dialogue despite lingering tensions.

The last round of the six-party disarmament talks were held in 2008, just before Pyongyang walked from the negotiations and conducted a second atomic test.

North Korea unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility to a U.S. scientist in November, sparking the need of a new strategy to prevent it from conducting another nuclear test and threatening regional peace.

By Shin Hae-in (
Korea Herald daum