Small victories after North, South Korea meet

After this week, military issues are on hold, but family reunions and economic talks will continue.

On North Korea's side of the demilitarized zone, sunk deeply in mountainous terrain, are thousands of artillery tubes – capable of sending 500,000 shells an hour into Seoul.

The North's guns are a significant military statement. But they are also used by Pyongyang as a significant diplomatic tool.

After three days of the first North and South Korea talks in many months concluded Wednesday, the North continues to play its military card by not committing to any military talks.

With the South's national elections coming up this December, President Kim Dae Jung very much needs the North to affirm its "sunshine policy" of engagement with concrete actions like talks on weapons and a reduction of troops and arms on the DMZ – assurances it didn't get.

What did come out of the Seoul meetings between senior ministers from the North and South were agreements to resume the reunions of families separated by a war that dates to 1950, to hold further economic talks this month, and to start a series of soccer and tae kwan do sports exchanges.

In one sense, analysts say, the meetings are important simply because they took place. For months, talks between the economic dynamo South, and the isolated and needy North, were stalemated by angry rhetoric, and by a shooting incident in the Yellow Sea on the eve of the World Cup soccer finals, co-hosted by the South. A South Korean patrol boat returned fire on a North Korean vessel that had crossed a sea border, and both sides lost lives.

Indeed, the talks came about after an unexpected summer surprise of initiatives by the North, including a meeting between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun. North Korea even stated last month that it will experiment with market economics.

Yet after all was said and done, a lot more was said than done, analysts say. No dates were set on a plan to reconnect a North-South rail line, last used in 1950, that was a cornerstone of agreements in 2000.

"That the North refused to set a date for high-level military talks indicates a strong military there will remain," says one South Korean source close to the Foreign Ministry. "Nor did we get an apology for the naval incident."

More handshakes

The North, however, is continuing to court the outside world. In coming weeks, both Japanese and US officials make their first trips to Pyongyang in many months. The US visit comes as this week Pyongyang said it would not observe International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspections required for the building of a nuclear reactor. The cement for the first reactor is still fresh in the ground, poured last week at a ceremony in North Korea attended by US officials. The US is paying for the reactor as part of a 1994 agreement in which the North must later prove it has not tampered with or added to a sealed cache of plutonium that US officials feel could be used to make one or two nuclear devices.

North Korean officials say that before talks on inspections can begin, the US must pay for years of electric power lost by delays in building the reactor.

"The North wants talks that will bring it closer to the money, but drags on anything its partners want," says one senior Western diplomat. "I'd say what happened this week is that the North has come to the table. They use their presence at talks as 'the big news.' "

Japan, which has never had formal ties with the North, still has substantial interests there. Japan recently raised from the ocean floor a vessel, said to be North Korean, sunk as it was escaping Japanese waters. In the past year, after what one Japanese official described as "bad treatment" by the North, Japan stopped sending rice to the North to feed its chronically-hungry people. In 1998, North Korea sent a three-stage missile over the northern part of Japan, alarming its neighbors and propelling to the fore the issue of theater missile defense by the United States.

In the main, many US and harder-line South Korean diplomats see elusive military talks on clearing mines, and moving troops and arms away from the DMZ as the core issue for the peninsula. They see cultural exchanges, family meetings, and announced dates for new dialogue as the North trying to play on the emotions of the South Koreans. These smoke screens allow the North to engage in diplomatic negotiations, while at the same time asking for more funds and food.

A get-tough view is deepening among a rising set of conservatives in South Korea, who feel the sunshine policy, while well intentioned, has been increasingly used and abused by his Northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea's motives

Responding to a question about President Bush's characterization of the North as part of an "axis of evil," former South Korean Foreign Minister Gong Ro-myung offered, "Kim Jong Il's 'military first' policy keeps the regime in power. The Republic of Korea wants North Korea to choose a market economy, but North Korea's foremost objective is to preserve its own system."

Supporters of the sunshine policy say that issues like military agreements must be worked out over time. If the North isn't to be provoked into hostile acts, a "soft landing" must be achieved through small victories and patience that will slowly change the regime.

US and South Korean analysts say that though the North may be using its status as a problematic nation as leverage, this strategy is likely to be well-thought through. "They may be contradictory, and they may act in what seems to us a counterproductive manner, but they are aiming at regime survival," says one Western source. "They aren't stupid."

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