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Getting North Korea to Talk: Why It's a Seesaw


By Michael BakerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 1997


Reunification, a goal claimed by both North and South Korea, seems to be a faraway dream. As the North reels under a worsening famine, the world - and especially South Korea - watches nervously from the sidelines.

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Repeated efforts at dialogue have failed. The latest talks between the two rivals just collapsed in Beijing.

Last week the highest defector from the North, Hwang Jang-yop, was reported to have said the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, believes in a military solution to the standoff, including suicide attacks on US aircraft carriers, and the use of nuclear weapons.

"Four party" peace talks proposed in 1996 involving the North, South, China, and the US are still on the table. It seemed that the North almost agreed last month. But most observers say that North Korea has never seemed sincere about peace.

Since 1972, Pyongyang has engaged Seoul in various talks, usually when it felt isolated or thought it could get the upper hand in trying to split the United States from its South Korean ally. Although dialogue sometimes produced cooperation - cultural exchanges, a unified sports team, reunions of separated families, limited trade - Pyongyang often suspended dialogue, sometimes with dire threats.

Origins of the conflict

At the end of World War II, the Soviets and the Americans carved up spheres of influence, cut Korea in half, and sparked a war that ended only with an armistice in 1953, not a peace treaty. Although superpower rivalries initiated the standoff, it is now fueled by two intensely competitive Korean governments.

The tense standoff has lasted for decades, and the border is perilously close to the South Korean capital. It's as if Central Park in New York were a foreign army base, and just over the border in Connecticut (where the North New Yorkers lived) a brainwashed army of 1.2 million were poised to invade.

Early Dialogue: 1970s

The two Koreas first began talking via the Red Cross in the early 1970s. Warming Sino-US relations made Pyongyang nervous, and it hoped to avoid isolation. China fought alongside the North in the Korean War and remains its closest ally. In 1972, both sides signed an agreement to open liaison offices in the border town of Panmunjom, agreed to promote inter-Korean dialogue, and to discontinue slander and armed provocations.

But the next year dialogue ended. Some analysts say both sides were only interested in the propaganda it generated, while others say - as they have every other time Pyongyang has walked away from the table since - that North Korea fundamentally fears engagement.

Any opening would undermine the lies Pyongyang had been feeding its people about the outside world.

Different approaches

Pyongyang regards unification as completion of its

Communist revolution, rather than a process of integrating two different parts. Seoul, meanwhile, hopes to build trust through cultural and economic exchanges and seeks to rehomogenize a people long divided. Unlike the North, Seoul says political issues should be addressed last.

Hard-liners here worry that if Pyongyang's political demands - withdrawal of US troops and a repeal of the South's anti-Communist laws - are met, South Korea would be more vulnerable. And North Korean officials, who have little idea how the South's democracy works, are suspicious of different opinions generated by South Korea's free society.