'End' to Korean War Hinges on China

The US, China, and two Koreas held initial talks last week on formally ending a long conflict.

It was enough they all came to the table. That they couldn't agree on the menu was almost expected.

The United States, China, and the two Koreas came together for the first time last week to set an agenda for formal peace talks. Their goal: replace the 1953 Korean War Armistice with a peace treaty. Officially, North and South Korea are still at war, and have maintained a cold peace since the end of the three-year conflict.

Most officials were doubtful anything significant would emerge from the preliminary talks. But the four countries did agree to reconvene next month.

Several demands almost derailed the talks. North Korea wanted American troops withdrawn from South Korea as a precondition. The North, where reports of widespread hunger are growing, demanded food aid in exchange for further talks, said Ji Won Suh, an official from South Korea's permanent mission to the United Nations.

The key player in the talks may be China, North Korea's only close ally. Beijing has recognized South Korea since 1992, and wants the US to establish officials ties with the secluded, Communist-run North.

"Beijing will want political imbalances to be addressed very early, meaning full diplomatic relations among all parties," said K. A. Namkung of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

"I think China plays a very stabilizing role - they are the biggest trading partner to North Korea," said South Korea's Foreign Minister, Yoo Chong.

"We believe that China is taking a very realistic view of the situation on the Korean peninsula. They support dialogue between South and North," he adds.

Another reason for optimism over eventual progress lies with North Korea itself, said Donald Gregg, chairman of the New York-based Korea Society, former US ambassador to South Korea, and former CIA station chief in Seoul.

A difficult and hostile negotiating partner, North Korea has in the past several months indicated a willingness to be more cooperative.

The most striking example its statement of regret over sending a submarine of commandos into South Korea last fall.

"With US pressure and prodding, the North Koreans apologized," said Mr. Gregg. "That's another signal that they want to talk."

The acute food shortage in the North, compounded by a recent drought, may have a big effect on the North's negotiating stance.

"A starving Korea is not conducive to a stable peninsula. In addition to the Koreans, there are 37,000 American troops and dependents in harm's way," said Leon Sigal of the Social Science Research Council in New York. "We may actually end up saving lives if we can successfully negotiate."

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