Pressure is mounting on South Korea to resume dialogue with North Korea and withdraw opposition to resuming denuclearization talks in the absence of Pyongyang’s apology for its earlier unprovoked hostilities. As Winston Churchill famously said, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war. But what if the North Korean communists do not abandon the idea of war-war while in talks?
North Korea has been knocking at the door for the resumption of talks at all levels only to be spurned by the South, which demands inter-Korean dialogue be preceded by apologies for the torpedoing of a South Korean corvette in March last year and the shelling of a South Korean island in November. While denying any responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan warship, North Korea claims it bombarded Yeonpyeong Island off its western coast in self-defense.
It does not take genius to guess what Pyongyang is ultimately aiming at. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is visiting Pyongyang now, spoke for the North Koreans when he said, “The World Food Program reports that the distribution of food to the people in North Korea has been dropped from 1,400 calories per day to about 700 calories per day, and that’s an average. So it’s a horrible situation there that we hope to help induce other countries to alleviate, including South Korea, which has cut off all supplies of food materials to the North Koreans.”
Indeed, South Korea has cut off food aid, and Carter apparently knows why. If the food situation is as dire as he says, is he willing to advise Pyongyang to apologize for the unprovoked acts of hostility and promise not to engage in any similar acts again? That is what he needs to do, as the U.S. government did, before calling on South Korea to resume food aid.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner was right when he said earlier in the month, “We’ve seen a steady pattern of belligerent behavior on the part of North Korea. So we need to see a clear and decisive move in the opposite direction before we can talk about next steps.” As he said, inter-Korean rapprochement should be an “essential first step” for the U.S. government’s diplomatic engagement with the North. It goes without saying the initiative in this regard must be taken by the North.
But South Korea may not be wholly satisfied with the United States, which, the spokesman said, does not demand a North Korean apology as a precondition for the six-party nuclear talks. In this regard, the United States shares much with China, whose idea is to promote talks between the chief South and North Korean nuclear negotiators, bilateral Pyongyang-Washington dialogue and then the full-fledged denuclearization talks.
But the question is whether or not China secured any commitment from the North Koreans to taking concrete action with regard to the U.S. demands before dispatching its chief nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, to Seoul on Tuesday on a mission to pave the way for the six-party talks. It may have done so, given that Wu met with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan in Beijing on April 11.
South Korea may not have to boycott the proposal to hold the denuclearization talks, just because the North refuses to apologize, if the United States and China are as enthusiastic about them as they appear. It may choose to attend the talks while putting off bilateral dialogue until its demands are met.
At the moment, passive participation would suffice for South Korea, given that it does not want self-imposed diplomatic isolation. Such strategic passivity, however, would not diminish its role in promoting denuclearization. Who else could provide the North with massive food and other types of aid, as South Korea had done until recently?