North Korea denounces war games, but is still game for six-party talks

North Korea denounced joint US and South Korean exercises on Thursday in a volley of rhetoric that analysts believe was sure to increase regional tensions, but not fresh clashes.

Hoang Dinh Nam/AP Photo/Pool
North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, center, surrounded by Vietnamese security staff, gets in a limousine to leave the main venue of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam Thursday. North Korea is denouncing US-South Korean military exercises while saying they are ready to resume six-party talks.

At a time when North Korea is attempting to show it's ready to resume six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang fired off a volley of rhetoric aimed at joint US and South Korean military exercises.

The denunciation, one day after the US announced new sanctions may increase regional tensions, say analysts, but does not mean fresh clashes are likely.

At the regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, North Korean spokesman Ri Tong-il characterized US and South Korea war games as “a grave threat to the peace and security not only of the Korean peninsula but of the region.”

While Mr. Ri’s tone was typical of North Korean denunciations of the annual US and South Korean exercises staged every spring, analysts fear North Korea may be using the war games to raise the temperature in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in the Yellow Sea. The war games are slated to begin Sunday off South Korea's east coast.

"[North Korea sees] the exercises as a real danger,” says Kim Bum-soo, a scholar on international relations and editor of an influential conservative magazine. “If we carry out the exercises, North Korea needs to fly its own fighters, to take defensive measure," he advises.

But North Korea’s aging warplanes, mostly Russian-built MiGs, are not likely to go anywhere near the exercises. They remain grounded much of the time due to of a lack of fuel and spare parts.

“I don’t think there will be retaliation in the near future,” says Mr. Kim, even though “the exercises will increase tensions.” He says he sees pressure against North Korea as building on the basis of “two-plus two talks” – that is, the meetings this week between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their South Korean counterparts in Seoul.

North Korea appears to see those meetings, and the exercises, as the basis for revving up a diplomatic campaign intended to show its willingness to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s spokesman says the country would return to the talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in December 2008, if they were held on “an equal footing” with other participants. By “equal footing,” he said he meant that the UN Security Council should first do away with the sanctions – a goal that appeared to undermine chances of a resumption of talks in the near future.

Meanwhile, North Korea is making an effort to show it is ready to talk. For the second time in two weeks, colonels from the United States and North Korea are due to meet Friday at the truce village of Panmunjom to prepare for broader talks between generals.

It was at Panmunjom that the Korean War armistice was signed nearly 57 years ago, on July 27, 1953.

As the focus on North Korea gradually shifts from crisis to that of impending talks, or talks about talks, analysts are skeptical of any substantive results.

“They are going to exploit the situation,” says Lee Chang-choon, a retired ambassador who participated in negotiations with North Korea in the early 1990s. “They would take advantage of what has happened in the UN” – referring to the watered-down statement issued by the UN Security Council that failed to blame North Korea for the attack on the Cheonan in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed.

As for the North Korean spokesman’s statement at the forum of ASEAN, in which South Korea is also participating, Mr. Lee says, “This is actually nonsense.” Ri's comments "are just a media exercise.” Mr. Lee calls the ASEAN gathering, at which diplomats typically signal high-level policies, “a kind of diplomatic festival.”

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