North and South Korea: Path to six-party talks rocky, but still open
Without six-party talks, there will be no opportunity to dissuade North Korea from testing another nuclear device. The US is trying to keep the conversation open.
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“South Korea was originally going to reject talks with the North, but because the US made a strong request, we felt it was important to accept a conversation,” says Dong Yongsuen, an expert on North Korea with the Samsung Economic Research Institute.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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Seoul is wary of being caught in a dead end, however. “North Korea wants these talks to create the chance of restarting six-party talks so that they can talk to the Americans, that’s all,” worries one senior South Korean official.
The six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in return for aid and diplomatic recognition by the US have been stalled since 2007.
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Though Washington has publicly supported Seoul’s demand for an apology from North Korea, and a pledge it will not repeat last year’s provocations, it is clear the US would like the government here to be liberal in how it interprets what would, at best, be a half-hearted North Korean statement.
The government “is prepared to construe” a suitable North Korean formulation as an apology, believes Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the US. “If they continue to balk they might lose their majority support among the public,” Professor Han suggests.
Split on public opinion
The South Korean electorate is – as ever – split over policy toward the North.
The Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents “have turned public opinion quite a bit against North Korea,” says Daniel Pinkston, an analyst here with the International Crisis Group think tank. Even government critics “are totally exasperated with North Korean behavior,” he adds.
At the same time, voters “don’t want these incidents exaggerated,” says Kim Dae-joong, a columnist with the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily. “Because if we retaliated it would bring all out war, and people do not want that again,” he explains.
After months of tension “people are beginning to feel that enough is enough,” says Paik Hak-soon, a political analyst at the Sejong Institute, a prominent think tank. “Now the government is under heavy pressure from the US to lower tensions, and pressure from the public, so it has to find an exit strategy” through talks with the North.
Despite the North Korean walkout two weeks ago, “it is too early to say whether the talks have been suspended and will resume, or whether they have broken down,” says Mr. Kim at the Unification Ministry.
Dr. Dong believes Pyongyang’s abrupt exit was part of “an emotional game. They realize South Korea is getting more flexible so they are playing a game to get what they want,” he says. “This is a process, and it’s not over yet.”
Donald Kirk contributed to this article.
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