What's behind North Korea's new 'peace offensive'?

While North Korea's New Year’s reconciliation message may be a sign of its willingness to return to six-party talks, it bears no clue as to whether the North would give up its nuclear program before attaining a number of other goals.

North Korea is in the throes of a new "peace offensive" that analysts say could lead to the resumption of six-party talks on its nuclear program.

The North Korean regime kicked off the offensive with a carefully modulated New Year’s message of reconciliation with the US that appears as a follow-up to US envoy Stephen Bosworth’s mission to Pyongyang in early December.

The statement calls for establishing “a lasting peace system on the Korean peninsula” in order to “make it nuclear-free through dialogue," and it contains none of the invective or recriminations that often characterize North Korea’s statements regarding the US. Rather, it advocates for “an end to the hostile relationship” with the US while asking North Koreans “to defend with our very lives the leadership” of Kim Jong-il.

As if to provide sound effects for the message, about 100,000 people demonstrated in Pyongyang on Saturday, shouting support for the regime's New Year's policies, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.

The question, however, is whether the latest rhetoric represents any shift in policy – or just a new approach.

Kim Tae-woo, veteran analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, says the North’s latest tactics are “a continuation of the shift” that began with the death in August of South Korea’s former president, Kim Dae-jung, an ardent advocate of North-South reconciliation. North Korea sent a team of mourners that attended Mr. Kim’s funeral in Seoul and met with South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak, until then a special target of the North’s media.

"That’s when they began the North Korean version of the two-track approach," says Kim Tae-woo. "They separate dialogue from nuclear development."

North Korea’s good-will gestures don’t have “anything to do with the nuclear program,” he says.

So will the north give up nuclear weapons?

While the New Year’s message may be a sign of the North’s willingness to return to six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, it bears no clue as to whether the North would abandon its nuclear program before attaining a number of other goals.

These include diplomatic relations with the US and the promise of massive quantities of aid to meet the energy requirements needed to jumpstart its dilapidated economy. Pointedly, the statement did not mention a role for South Korea, which North Korea prefers to bypass or subordinate in talks on the nuclear issue.

“They still show pressure toward South Korea,” says Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

Whither the 'grand bargain'?

The institute called for a summit between Kim Jong-il and President Lee Myung-bak to discuss Mr. Lee’s proposal for a “grand bargain” in which the North would get vast amounts of aid for giving up its its nuclear weapons. The proposal for a Kim-Lee summit evokes memories of the June 2000 and Oct. 2007 summits at which Kim hosted Kim Dae-jung and then Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung’s successor as president.

North Korea did not comment on the idea of another North-South summit but has previously heaped scorn on Lee’s “grand bargain.”

If nothing else, however, North Korea’s New Year’s message may be good news for Robert Park, the American missionary who crossed the frozen Tumen River border from China into North Korea on Christmas eve. Mr. Park bore a message of peace and good-will for Kim Jong-il – along with demands for release of political prisoners and opening of borders.

Park is expected to become a pawn in negotiations as the US presses North Korea to return to negotiations. Mr. Bosworth in Pyongyang discussed a wide range of issues that he said could all be covered during multilateral talks.

* The original version of this story misstated the date of Mr. Park's trip across the Tumen River as well as the name of Kim Dae-jung's successor.

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