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[Editorial] Who holds cards?

North Korea’s chronic food shortage is no secret. Still, few would have imagined that underfed soldiers go AWOL, take farm animals away from nearby houses for food or rob civilians of their personal possessions. That is what Radio Free Asia of the United States has recently reported, quoting North Korean residents. It also reported the North Korean military has virtually canceled an annual wintertime drill because of the worsening food problem.
If so, it does not take genius to guess that a deepening concern for food is a main motive, if not the only one, behind North Korea’s offensive for dialogue with South Korea. It may also have been pressured by China, its sole military ally, to engage South Korea in talks, given Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Jan. 19 agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama that “sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step” toward peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The communist state, which had proposed to hold high-level military talks with no strings attached, accepted South Korea’s counterproposal on Jan. 20 that the agenda include its latest deadly provocations ― the March sinking of the Cheonan warship and the November artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Preparatory talks are likely to be held in mid-February, with Feb. 11 proposed as the date by the South.
In parallel with the bilateral dialogue, South Korea is likely to participate in multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program when the talks, stalled since 2008, resume in the near future. With the United States and China preparing to restart the six-party denuclearization talks, South Korea took a major step toward its participation when it said earlier in the week that the redress of North Korea’s latest provocations ― Cheonan and Yeonpyeong ― would be no precondition.
In other words, it promised not to boycott the six-way talks even if the North refused to admit to torpedoing the Cheonan warship and commit itself to not engaging in an unprovoked attack as it did when it shelled Yeonpyeong. As such, the six-way talks will proceed when North Korea proves its sincerity about denuclearization ― a precondition set by the United States for resuming the talks.
Little harm will be done to South Korea just because the multilateral denuclearization talks are decoupled from the inter-Korean dialogue. On one hand, South Korea may choose to walk out of the bilateral talks anytime if its demands with regard to Cheonan and Yeonpyeong are not met. It holds all the cards, given that few other countries in the world could provide North Korea with as much aid as it has done in the past ― 400,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer a year.
On the other hand, South Korea does not have as much sway on the six-party talks as it does on the bilateral talks. Still, neither Washington nor Beijing can afford to ignore Seoul’s demands with regard to the six-party talks, given that when they resume, they will do on a tacit assumption that the lion’s share of rewards for Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization would come from South Korea.
Against this backdrop, South Korea has apparently agreed to limit its precondition for participation in the six-party talks to the demand that North Korea prove it is sincere in its pursuit of denuclearization. At the same time, it does not hide its intention of boycotting the high-level military talks if the preparatory contact fails to produce any tangible results in its favor.
In engaging the South, the North will do well to understand President Lee Myung-bak is not like his predecessors when it comes to inter-Korean relations. Lee, who has accused former presidents of pampering Pyongyang for nothing, demands “give and take” be the guiding principle in policy on North Korea.
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