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North Korea walks out of talks. Is it setting the stage for more nuclear tests?

After walking out of a meeting meant as a preliminary step toward six-party nuclear talks, some worry North Korea may stage another nuclear test. Its first test came during a break in six-party talks in 2006.

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Mr. Lee has said he, too, would be willing to meet Kim Jong-il but has insisted talks should be “serious” – that North Korea should not only apologize for the Yellow Sea attacks but should show real signs of giving up its nuclear weapons program. Instead, North Korea has said it’s nearing completion of a 20-megawatt reactor for making warheads with highly enriched uranium, an advance over the plutonium devices it’s produced with its aging five-megawatt reactor.

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Still, some analysts say eventually the two Koreas have to return to the table – though how and when is not at all clear.

It was at North Korea’s request last month to discuss military issues between defense ministers that the two sides opened the talks at the colonel level in an effort to overcome months of near-crisis as a result of two bloody attacks in or near disputed waters in the Yellow Sea. First came the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors perished and then the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November that killed two marines and two civilians.

North Korea’s resistance to South Korean demands for an apology for those incidents, for acceptance of "responsibility" for the deaths, for damage to property, and for a promise to refrain from future “provocations” stiffened during the last talks, the first since North and South Korean colonels met briefly on Sept. 30. The South Koreans said they wanted to get all those items on the defense ministers’ agenda, according to the South Korean version, but the North Koreans insisted on talking about a halt to military actions in general.

A tug of war

“This is just the beginning,” says Paik Hak-soon,” a long-time North Korea scholar at the Sejong Institute. “They are both playing a tug of war. They will have some time and then they will continue negotiations again."

Mr. Paik describes this week’s talks as “a kind of show for their respective constituencies” – that is, for the North Koreans to demonstrate their toughness for North Korean hard-liners and for the South Koreans to demonstrate Lee’s resolve not to compromise.

Still, analysts wonder how Lee can accept anything less than a plausible apology from North Korea in view of the outrage provoked by the Yeonpyeong shelling, the first attack on South Korean soil since the signing of the armistice at Panmunjom in July 1953.

“They just can’t come up with a statement saying it’s unfortunate these things happened,” says Choi Jong-gun, a political science professor at Yonsei University. “That will backfire against this government. The conservatives will harshly criticize the government.”

Others, however, call for compromise. “The current government believes the hard-line policy is working,” says Moon Jung-in, a professor in Yonsei’s Graduate School of International Studies. “I would not put any preconditions on dialogue. Let is discuss all things” – rather than insist on an apology.

Colonel Moon, briefing on what transpired at the talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, said that the North Korean side had stuck fast to its repeated denials of involvement in the Cheonan incident, calling its sinking “a fabrication” of South Korea’s “anti-North Korea policy.”

As for the Yeonpyeong shelling, he said, the North Koreans blamed the South Koreans for shelling first.

“We had a good attitude,” said Moon, describing the South Koreans’ silence as the North Koreans strode out of the room. “We were cool and maintained our composure.”

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