BEIJING - While colonels from North and South Korea plan to meet next Tuesday to lay the groundwork for higher-level military talks, South Korea's Lee Myung-bak administration is still seen as shunning genuine dialogue, despite some positive statements expressing willingness to engage.
Seoul has good reason. It suspects that a peace offensive by the North is just another maneuver aimed at earning economic aid and diplomatic concessions. Yet with some prodding by Washington, Seoul is reluctantly reaching out to Pyongyang.
South Korea faces a dilemma. After two fatal incidents last
year that killed a total of 50 South Koreans, it's difficult to throw down a welcoming mat to Pyongyang's proposal for talks.
On the other hand, the United States and China, alarmed by the possibility of a major armed clash on the peninsula, after watching how the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island escalated precariously, worry that Seoul's firm positions may hamper efforts to bring down the heat and restart the nuclear disarmament talks.
During his visit last month to Washington, Chinese President Hu Jintao and his US counterpart Barack Obama urged the two Koreas to talk each other.
While Seoul doesn't want to be seen as the party that boycotts the peace effort, it had set some important preconditions to talks. One was that North Korea apologize for the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last March and the shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong in November. The problem is that the North denies any responsibility for the Cheonan incident and claims that the South's military exercises prompted the artillery assault.
Domestically, now seemed a very inconvenient time for Seoul to drop such preconditions. This would require giving an explanation to a South Korean population whose feelings towards the naughty northerners have soured after last year's incidents.
"In the memories of South Korean people, the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents won't be forgotten easily," said Han Suk-hee, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. Han sits on a committee that advises Lee on foreign policy.
Besides, such a gesture would offend Lee's conservative supporters. If he engages North Korea without a good explanation, he would likely be required to fend off more speculation that he is a lame-duck president.
Against this backdrop, pundits have already foreseen an early breakdown of the working-level inter-Korean military talks set for next week. These will be an early measure of the temperature of the estranged relationship.
Some observers believe South Korea will blink first. "There is a large chance that the Lee government will judge that the current stalemate is not sustainable," said Jo Dong-ho, a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
Jo sees the North Korean issue as having a very nuanced effect on domestic South Korean politics. That is, while South Koreans support Lee's principled hardline position on North Korea, at the same time they don't want prolonged tension with the North.
"This sentiment is already beginning to surface in opinion polls. And there is an increasing discontent within Lee's own Grand National Party that if Lee continues with his hardline stance, it might cost them their legislative seats in elections early next year," said Jo.
Outside South Korea, North Korea is making it difficult for Lee with an international charm offensive strategy, making Lee appear responsible for instability in the Korean Peninsula.
Time is ticking on the North's much-publicized objective of becoming a "powerful and prosperous country" next year. The nuclear-armed North Korea feels powerful enough on the military front, but is lagging behind on the economic. "That's especially important to justify the legitimacy of Kim Jong-eun as the next leader," said Jo.
The most powerful force pushing South Korea towards tension-reducing gestures is none other than its most important ally, the US. "After the Yeonpyeong incident, Washington and Beijing have come to the decision that high tension on the verge of war on the Korean Peninsula shouldn't be allowed," said Paik Hak-soon, director of inter-Korean relations at the Sejong Institute, a think-tank near Seoul. "The tone for rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula was set at the summit between Obama and Hu Jintao."
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank, sees the US as having signaling to Seoul that it is ready to shift back to dialogue. "The US is willing to support South Korea for the time being. There is certainly an appreciation of the tragedies South Korea has suffered and it may be premature for South Korea to re-engage North Korea," Glaser said in a conversation with this writer before the summit.
"But having said that, I already sense that there has been a shift in the US position. North Korea did not respond to the South's live-fire drills. It generated a little bit of momentum to improve the situation. I think there is a sense in the Obama administration that it at least presents an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. So, there is a beginning of the hint to the South Korean government that we need to begin thinking about how we might capitalize on opportunities presented to achieve a sustainable turn in the events on the Korean Peninsula with the hope of getting back to a diplomatic process," Glaser said.
At the same time, the US so far also has been careful not to be dictate policy to its Asian ally. Kurt Campbell, the Obama administration's chief diplomat for Asia, on Wednesday in Washington said the US had not considered resuming humanitarian food aid to North Korea, calming speculation that the US would go ahead and engage the North unilaterally.
In fact, Washington has made a series of public statements emphasizing how safe the US-South Korea alliance is, apparently in a nod to Pyongyang, which often tries to drive a wedge between the allies. Last week in the Seoul leg an Asian swing, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg even said, "US and South Korea [ties] are as close as 'sticky rice cake'," using the popular Korean expression.
But Steinberg likely had more on his menu than rice cake. After meeting with him, a senior South Korean government official said an apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents was now "not a precondition to the resumption of the six-party talks", marking a dramatic u-turn in Seoul's position.
Seoul's remarkable "flexibility" drew some criticism from conservative quarters. It is also seen as a diplomatic victory for the North "because in effect the North has succeeded in getting talks because it carried out violent and dangerous acts", said Denny Roy, a security expert on Asia at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Seoul had more surprises to offer. On Tuesday, Lee even said an inter-Korean summit was possible, marking a significant softening in tone.
Analysts didn't miss that all this change happened after Steinberg's visit. "Washington persuaded Seoul to engage Pyongyang," said Paik at the Sejong Institute. Paik took back the word "persuade", replacing it with "pressure". "In fact, it was pressure." He added Seoul would try to slow down the engagement process as much as possible but eventually would conform to Washington's wishes.
The fact that it was a South Korean, not a US official, who made the surprising u-turn statement was also a part of Washington's diplomatic choreography, to give "face" to its Asian ally, analysts noted.
"The Obama administration has publicly agreed to let Seoul take the lead. That's about the best you can hope for as a small country with a superpower ally," said Roy at the East-West Center.
Sunny Lee ([email protected]) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.