Why South Korea has agreed to six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program

Analysts in South Korea believe President Lee’s surprise call for six-party talks will bring the parties to the table since China and North Korea have both been calling in recent weeks for resumption of talks.

Jo Bo-hee/Yonhap/AP
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. President Lee surprised many by calling for a resumption of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

South Korea promised a dramatic shift Wednesday in its approach to North Korea, holding out the olive branch of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program along with the prospect of reconciliation and North-South reunification.

The chances of North Korea giving an enthusiastic response to these overtures were seen as virtually nil, but resumption of six-party talks suddenly became a distinct possibility after President Lee Myung-bak declared, “We have no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program diplomatically.”

President Lee’s remarks appeared to be the centerpiece of a carefully coordinated tactic in which South Korea's foreign and unification ministries issued statements urging a return to dialogue. Six-party talks, hosted by China, were last held in Beijing two years ago but were suspended after North Korea refused to return to the table – and then conducted its second underground nuclear explosion five months later in May 2009.

Some observers see South Korea's latest moves as initiating a peace offensive five weeks after North Korean gunners fired 270 rounds of artillery on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.

North Korea has said the attack was in response to South Korean forces firing into disputed waters around the island, but the North held back on firing in response to a brief South Korean artillery exercise on the same island last week.

Mr. Lee repeatedly vowed “stern retaliation,” changed defense ministers, authorized extensive upgrading of the South’s defenses, and ordered intense military exercises on land and sea – but now says six-party talks should bring about “removal of the North Korean nuclear program next year.”

Why now?

The reason, said Lee, is that North Korea has set the year 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994, as the target “for its achievement as a power country.”

"Great Leader" Kim, as he was known in North Korea was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il, who rules as chairman of the North’s national defense commission. Kim Jong-il has designated his son, Kim Jong-un, still in his late 20s, as his successor.

South Korea and the US said previously they did not favor talks unless North Korea showed clear signs of living up to agreements reached in 2007 for giving up its nuclear weapons program. They became still more outspoken on the topic after the North showed off a new facility in November, capable of producing highly enriched uranium for warheads, at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon where the North has long had a five-megawatt reactor for fabricating nuclear devices with plutonium at their core.

Analysts in Seoul believe Lee’s surprise call for six-party talks may help bring the parties to the table since China and North Korea have both been calling in recent weeks for resumption of talks. They doubt, however, renewed talks will bring about serious moves by North Korea to begin doing away with its nuclear program.

More talking “will not result in anything and will not be productive,” says Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “Resumption of talks is not meaningful at all.” If South Korea does return to six-party talks, he notes, “we should withdraw preconditions,” notably the oft-stated demand that North Korea apologize for both the Yeonpyeong Island incident and for the sinking in March of the navy corvette the Cheonan, also in the Yellow Sea, with the loss of 46 sailors.

Possible reunification?

Kim Bum-soo, editor and publisher of a conservative magazine here, believes that Lee seems to have changed his view on North Korea.” The president, he says, is saying “it’s time to focus on reunification” even though “he’s quite aware North Korea has no intention to give up it nuclear program.”

While assenting to six-party talks, South Korea is also pressing the goal of renewed North-South dialogue, spurned by North Korea as North-South relations steadily deteriorated.

South Korea’s unification minister, Hyun In-taek, said the South would “press North Korea to move toward denuclearization and peace in lieu of nuclear arms” and give higher priority to the welfare of its citizens than to its policy of “songun,” military first.

Mr. Hyun suggested North Korea adopt “a Chinese-style model" featuring capitalist free enterprise within a communist political system.

In a formula of alternating dialogue and pressure, he promised to "aggressively try to bring about the irreversible denuclearization in North Korea” within the next 12 months” while protesting the North’s “harsh rhetoric” against the South.

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