Step toward peace? South Korea agrees to talk with North Korea.
The timing is widely interpreted in South Korea as a dividend of Chinese pressure to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula – and the meeting this week between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Seoul, South Korea
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Hours after President Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao called for “sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue, North Korea's highest defense official messaged South Korea’s defense minister proposing talks on “military issues.”
The North Korean message and South Korean response do not necessarily mean a breakthrough, say analysts here, but they represent another step away from the atmosphere of confrontation and brinksmanship after the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November.
The message, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, indicated North Korea’s willingness to discuss such “provocations” as the shelling of the island and the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in nearby waters in March. All told, 50 people died in those attacks – two Marines, two civilians on the island, and 46 sailors on the ship.
South Korea, promptly accepting the proposal for talks by Kim Young-chun, who is minister of the People’s Armed Forces, said the South would use the talks to “ask North Korea to take responsible measures” for last year’s attacks. An official at the South’s Unification Ministry said the South would propose separate talks between high-ranking officials on denuclearization – that is, the basic inter-Korean talks that the South has long demanded as a prelude to six-party talks.
The North Korean proposal said nothing about demands for the North to live up to previous agreements to give up its nuclear weapon program, but the timing is widely interpreted here as a dividend of Chinese pressure to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula – and the meeting this week between Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu.
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The Obama-Hu summit factor
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the Washington meeting, in the view of South Korean officials, is that the two presidents “expressed concern” about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program while calling for steps to “early resumption of the six-party talks,” last held in Beijing in December 2008.
“They recognized the problem of uranium enrichment,” says Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister, “and China is clearly talking about North Korea violating the Sept. 19 agreement” – the statement agreed on at six-party talks in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2005, under which the North would give up it nuclear program in exchange for massive economic aid.
The expression of “concern” about uranium enrichment is especially significant since North Korea in November first showed off its new facility to produce the uranium for nuclear warheads.