China's Hu Jintao's visit: South Korea is worried Obama will cave on North Korea talks

South Korea’s main concern appears to be that Obama does not acquiesce to Hu’s call for six-party talks without the South’s full agreement – and without concessions on the part of North Korea.

Charles Dharapak/AP
The Capitol dome is seen at rear as Chinese and US flags are displayed in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 18, ahead of the arrival of China's President Hu Jintao for a state visit hosted by President Obama.

In anticipation of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s arrival in Washington for Wednesday’s summit with President Obama, South Korean officials are digging in against North Korea’s demands for six-party talks.

South Korea’s main concern appears to be that Mr. Obama will acquiesce to Mr. Hu’s call for six-party talks without the South’s full agreement – and without any substantive concessions on the part of North Korea.

Given that the US appears open to renewing dialogue, however, it’s far from clear how forcefully or how long South Korea will be able to resist talks it believes have no chance of getting North Korea to do away with its nuclear program.

“We all know North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification, ”but still, we should talk to North Korea in an international format.”

The reason is that “six-party talks are not just for the nuclear issue but to ease tensions,” says Mr. Choi. "North Korea is desperate to talk to Washington. That’s why Washington wants to meet, and Seoul doesn’t want to meet.”

South Korea's demands

South Korea’s unification minister, Hyun In-taek, insisted again Tuesday on what South Korean leaders view as the minimal requirement for six-party dialogue – that North Korea apologize for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians.

Other South Korean demands, though not necessarily prerequisites for returning to the table, include an apology for the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in nearby waters last March, signs that North Korea will “freeze” its nuclear and missile programs and agreement on talks between North and South Korea as a prelude to six-party talks.

Foreign ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun responded almost immediately after Hu was quoted in The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as calling for “conditions for resumption of the six-party talks,” last held in Beijing in Dec. 2008.

“Most important in improving inter-Korean relations and denuclearization of North Korea through six-party talks is for North Korea to change its attitude seriously,” he said. He called for giving “priority” to issues “related to a serious change.”

South Korean officials see no chance of North Korea making any concessions in the near future.

Upset by China

They are disturbed, moreover, by China’s refusal to condemn North Korea for the attacks in the Yellow Sea – or even for building a 20-megawatt reactor capable of enriching uranium to the degree needed to build more nuclear devices. North Korea is already believed to have what’s needed for up to a dozen nuclear devices with plutonium processed by a five-megawatt reactor in the same complex at Yongbyon.

Obama is not expected, however, to accept Hu’s call for six-party talks right away.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has offered pro forma support, but did not specifically mention the North’s nuclear program or Seoul’s demand for an apology from Pyongyang when he met here Friday with President Lee and his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin.

“I don’t think the Americans are going to go over the heads of the South Koreans and agree to six-party talks,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies here. “They are all talking about dialogue, but my reading is [that] the Americans have been very strong on that issue" – and will not yield so easily to Hu's call for talks.

First, "the Chinese will have to brief the North Koreans on what the US-China summit is all about,” he says. “The North Koreans might do something foolish down the road, but they’ll take their time” – while waiting to see what happens in their pleas for talks.

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