Koreas edge towards first nuclear
talks- By Sunny Lee
Officials from both Koreas and the United
States have given a green-light to first-ever
inter-Korean nuclear talks. The proposed
negotiations would form the first of a
"three-stage" process suggested by China to
restart six-party talks on the North's nuclear
Beijing proposed the
"three-stage" plan to the North's chief nuclear
negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, during a visit to
Beijing last week. After inter-Korean talks, the
second step would be dialogue between the US and
North Korea and the third a full resumption of the
Though the North's
officials has not commented on China's proposal
for the first step - inter-Korean talks - South
the US agreed in principle to
the proposal during US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's visit to Seoul at the weekend.
However, analysts are split on the chances
of inter-Korea discussions making any progress
given developments since the last six-party talks,
which include the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China
and the US, stalled in December 2008.
During the two-year hiatus, North Korea
has further developed its uranium enrichment
program, as was revealed to visiting US scientist
Dr Siegfried Hecker last fall. Inter-Korean
tensions also flared over the North's suspected
involvement in the sinking of a South Korean naval
corvette and its shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
Nonetheless, ''Washington and Seoul are
conditionally opening up the door for dialogue,''
the South Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo wrote in its
A timetable has not
been announced for the inter-Korean nuclear talks
but South Korea's Yonhap News predicts North Korea
is likely to make an official proposal for
inter-Korean nuclear talks ''within this week''.
The motivation for Washington and Beijing
in encouraging the two Koreas to sit down is
likely a reduction in tensions in East Asia. But
one major potential hurdle is South Korea's
condition to any negotiations - that the North
apologize for its alleged sinking of the
Cheonan last March, which killed 46, and
the bombardment of Yeonpyeong.
Domestically in South Korea, public
sentiment toward their naughty northern neighbors
turned sour after the fatal attacks, supporting
the Lee Myung-bak administration's hardline
posture toward North Korea. This makes it
inconvenient for the Lee to administration shift
its approach toward North Korea.
inter-Korean talks were to be meaningful, North
Korea should show offer apology for last year's
provocations and sincerity for denuclearization.''
Hyun In-taek, South Korea's unification minister,
said on Tuesday:
Lee's spokeswoman Kim
Hee-jung said on the same day, ''The government's
position is clear in that if the six-party talks
resume without North Korea's change of attitude
[on these issues], there won't be any progress on
the inter-Korean relationship,'' reiterating that
''the key is North Korea's change of attitude.''
South Korean foreign ministry's statements
on the matter have however, diverted from this
course were slightly different. 'Actually, we
didn't present it [an apology[ as a
precondition.'' Ministry's spokesman Cho Byung-je
said last week.
That exchange went like
Reporter: Are you saying that even
if there were no North Korean apology on the
Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, (South
Korea) can hold inter-Korean discussions on
denuclearization that will lead to the restart
of the six-party talks? Would you clarify?
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho: I didn't
mean it that way. Unless North Korea shows some
sort of sincerity on this matter, and unless
North Korea does acknowledge that improving
inter-Korean relations is the first step, it's
very hard to expect progress in the six-party
talks. That's how we see the
The foreign ministry's
position is also slightly different from President
Lee's, who according to Yonhap on Saturday, said
''his country would continue to demand apologies
as a precursor to the resumption of the six-party
John Delury, a security expert at
the Yonsei University Graduate School of
International Studies in Seoul, said the South
Korean government has a clear strategy. ''The
signals have been mixed. It may have been a case
of strategic ambiguity or tactical ambiguity.
Seoul's spokespeople have been regularly bringing
up the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong issue and
there has to be something to be done to move
forward the talks. But then they also leaving
wiggling room, and not making an unequivocal
demand that we must have an apology.''
Some don't see the ambiguity as a
strategy, but a split within the South Korean
government. On the one hand, there are the
hardline presidential Blue House officials and
unification ministry officials, who continue to
demand North Korean apology. On the other, there
is the foreign ministry, which wants to de-couple
the inter-Korean issue from the six-party talks.
Analysts agree that Seoul is likely to
accept the Chinese offer of the three-step
approach as it sees holding the talks as useful in
changing the stalled atmosphere in the
upcoming inter-Korean dialogue would likely deal
with the nuclear issue for the first time.
North Korea in the past sidestepped South
Korea as it didn't see it as an ''equal partner''
on the matter, and preferred to deal directly with
the United States. Seoul reportedly made it clear
that unless the inter-Korean talks included the
nuclear issue, it wouldn't sit down with the
''The nuclear issue will be dealt
with in the inter-Korean meeting,'' said Cui
Zhiying, director of the Korean Peninsula Research
Office under the Asia-Pacific Research Center of
Tongji University in Shanghai. ''In the past,
North Korea's foreign policy priority was the US.
Now, the change reflects that North Koreans are
willing to attach greater importance to the
analysts expect that getting the two Koreas to sit
down will be easy, they don't expect the talks to
make much progress. ''I don't think there is any
disagreement on holding the inter-Korean talks. It
shows South Korea's consistent position that the
window for dialogue is open. But I frankly don't
expect much from what the talks can achieve,''
said Rhee Bong-jo, a former vice minister at the
Ministry of Unification in Seoul.
believes Seoul's demand for a North Korean apology
and the North's reluctance to relinquish its
nuclear program will continue to become major
stalling points. If inter-Korean talks fall apart,
the prospects for the next two steps of China's
plans would be uncertain as well.
at Yonsei University shares the pessimism. ''At
this juncture, we are still talking about
'potentially' taking a step towards the resumption
of the six-party talks. There is still a long way
to go. It's so easy to break down,'' he said. ''I
am not seeing any tipping point from Seoul, and
Washington. They don't have that attitude of ‘we
are going to force to make it happen'.''
Lu Chao, director of the Korean Research
Center at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences,
located near the North Korean border, urges Seoul
and Washington to grab the momentum. ''This is a
good timing. North Korea is willing to re-engage
the outside world now its leadership succession
process has become more stable. South Koreans'
antipathy toward North Korea due to last year's
incidents is also showing signs of moderation
Former US president Jimmy Carter is
scheduled to visit North Korea later this week.
Although the US government characterized it as
purely a ''private visit,'' Lu doesn't think so.
''Everyone knows that when a man of his stature
visits North Korea even as a private person, it
still carries a great symbolic importance and
helps North Korea to get in touch with the outside
world.'' An American citizen for months has been
detained in North Korea. Lu believes that Carter's
visit will help the American to be released.
Lu said South Korea should engage North
Korea to demand an apology, instead of using it as
a precondition to talks. ''Only when you sit down
on the table, can you more effectively demand an
apology and discuss details.''
urges the current Lee administration to be more
forward-looking in terms of inter-Korean
relations. ''Instead of dwelling on the past, it's
more productive to search ways on how to prevent
similar incidents in the future and improve
Lee (email@example.com) is a
Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has
degrees from the US and China.
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