South Korea's Lee inches closer to high-level talks with North Korea

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak said Tuesday he has 'high hopes for a change in attitude' from North Korea and implied that South Korea might consider significant aid for the North’s dilapidated economy.

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    South Koreans watch a live TV reporting of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at a panel debate at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 1. Lee urged North Korea to show responsibility for last year's two deadly attacks ahead of looming defense talks between the divided countries.
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South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak said Tuesday he would deign to “hold a summit” with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il “if necessary” amid “high hopes for a change in attitude” after months of confrontation.

President Lee, in a lengthy television interview on the eve of the five-day lunar new year holiday, said North Korea must show its “seriousness” and stop “military provocations” – the type of remark that drew strong denunciations from Pyongyang earlier in his presidency.

This time, however, South Korea promptly followed up by agreeing on North Korea’s proposal for preliminary “working level” talks next week between military officers. The talks, at the truce village of Panmunjom on the line between the two Koreas, would be the first since South and North Korean colonels met briefly on Sept. 30.

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This time, the colonels, when they meet on Feb. 8, will have more to talk about. They will be preparing for crucial negotiations between defense ministers as requested by North Korea last month.

Lee's remarks implied that South Korea not only remained open to dialogue with the North, but might even consider significant aid for the North’s dilapidated economy.

If North Korea “seeks sincere dialogue rather than military provocations,” Lee said, “we can have dialogue and resume economic exchanges” – and also hold six-party talks.

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North Korea has been calling for renewal of six-party talks “without preconditions” for several weeks in an effort to tone down the level of confrontation engendered by its bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23. Two South Korean marines and two civilians died in that attack, which the North said was a defensive response to what it claimed were marine artillery exercises in its waters. North Korea has not said, however, if it’s willing to negotiate an end to its nuclear program as agreed on Sept. 19, 2005, after the first round of the talks in Beijing.

Bait of economic aid

The bait of economic aid was believed to be growing more and more tempting for North Korea while the North suffers through a particularly harsh winter in which temperature have plunged to record lows. North Korea also is seen as wanting to stock up on food donations from foreign countries while preparing to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly 50 years before dying in 1994 and leaving his son, Kim Jong-il to rule.

"It seems they’re very much in need of goods,” says Kim Bum-soo, editor of a conservative magazine here. “They want to be able to show visible progress to their people.” North Korea may also be concerned, he says, about wanting to put on a good show for Kim Jong-Il’s birthday on Feb. 16.

US pressure

The sense among analysts here is that the US is pressuring its South Korean ally while China pressures its North Korean ally to negotiate. “The US is asking South Korea to talk,” says Mr. Kim. “That’s for sure.”

South Korea, however, may make demands that North Korea is not prepared to meet.

A senior official on President Lee’s staff said the South Korean colonel in the preliminary talks will demand an apology for the Yeonpyeong Island shelling and also for the sinking in March of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in which 46 sailors died. North Korea denies any role in that episode in which a South Korean investigation concluded a North Korean midget submarine fired a torpedo, splitting the Cheonan in two.

Analysts say the talks could stil break down over the apology.

"It is likely that the upcoming North-South Korean military talks won't get very far," say David Straub, a former senior US diplomat here. "The chances of North Korea acknowledging much less taking responsibility for the Cheonan sinking is next to zero."

Even if North Korea expresses regret about the deaths of civilians, says Mr. Straub, the North could blame the South "for not acceding to North Korean demands about the Northern Limit Line" – the marker on maps below which the South bans North Korean vessels.

South Korea would find that position "deeply offensive," Straub adds, "North Korea clearly is engaged in a major charm offensive" – and may "make nice for a while longer even if the South shows little or no flexibility about the responsibility issue."

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