Step toward peace? South Korea agrees to talk with North Korea.

The timing is widely interpreted in South Korea as a dividend of Chinese pressure to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula – and the meeting this week between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

South Korean Army via Yonhap/AP
In this photo, South Korean Army soldiers run out from a Black Hawk helicopter during an exercise to prepare for possible aggression by North Korea in Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 20. South Korea has welcomed an agreement between leaders of the US and China on the need to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and achieve its denuclearization.

North Korea and South Korea are apparently on their way to talking again.

Hours after President Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao called for “sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue, North Korea's highest defense official messaged South Korea’s defense minister proposing talks on “military issues.”

The North Korean message and South Korean response do not necessarily mean a breakthrough, say analysts here, but they represent another step away from the atmosphere of confrontation and brinksmanship after the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November.

The message

The message, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, indicated North Korea’s willingness to discuss such “provocations” as the shelling of the island and the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in nearby waters in March. All told, 50 people died in those attacks – two Marines, two civilians on the island, and 46 sailors on the ship.

South Korea, promptly accepting the proposal for talks by Kim Young-chun, who is minister of the People’s Armed Forces, said the South would use the talks to “ask North Korea to take responsible measures” for last year’s attacks. An official at the South’s Unification Ministry said the South would propose separate talks between high-ranking officials on denuclearization – that is, the basic inter-Korean talks that the South has long demanded as a prelude to six-party talks.

The North Korean proposal said nothing about demands for the North to live up to previous agreements to give up its nuclear weapon program, but the timing is widely interpreted here as a dividend of Chinese pressure to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula – and the meeting this week between Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu.

The Obama-Hu summit factor

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the Washington meeting, in the view of South Korean officials, is that the two presidents “expressed concern” about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program while calling for steps to “early resumption of the six-party talks,” last held in Beijing in December 2008.

“They recognized the problem of uranium enrichment,” says Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister, “and China is clearly talking about North Korea violating the Sept. 19 agreement” – the statement agreed on at six-party talks in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2005, under which the North would give up it nuclear program in exchange for massive economic aid.

The expression of “concern” about uranium enrichment is especially significant since North Korea in November first showed off its new facility to produce the uranium for nuclear warheads.

The Geneva framework agreement of 1994, under which North Korea shut down another reactor for producing plutonium, fell apart after revelation of the uranium program in 2002, but North Korea for several years denied anything to do with enriching uranium.

A senior official on the staff of South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak says resolution of the uranium issue and a freeze on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs “will be the litmus test to see if we can pursue any grand bargain.” Meanwhile, he warns, South Korea is placing “priority” on building up its defenses, and “there will be a clear response” if North Korea again attacks the South.

Mr. Han, the former foreign minister who has also served as South Korea’s ambassador to the US, also credits the US, at the summit this week, with having “persuaded China to accept the importance of having North-South dialogue in advance of six-party talks.” North Korea has repeatedly called for Russia and Japan as well as China, the US, and the two Koreas to return to those talks, “without preconditions,” while skipping demands for North-South talks.

Paik Hak-soon, a long-time analyst of North Korea at the Sejong Institute, an influential think tank here, says Obama and Hu “confirmed the basic principles of how to lower tensions and deal with the nuclear issue.” The next step, he says, is to “create actions that follow these high-level exchanges,” with US officials coming to Seoul and Chinese officials going to Pyongyang to bring about results.

Pressing apology?

As for South Korean demands for an “apology” for past provocations and “action” on the North’s nuclear program, says Mr. Paik, “we have to have dialogue” and South Korea will have to soften conditions.” South Korea, he says, can go on pressing its basic points in actual negotiations.

A senior South Korean official suggests, however, that the road to any North-South agreement will be difficult. “North Korea most fears full-scale war and defeat,” he says. “Military effectiveness of South Korea is most important.” If North Korea “apologizes first,” he adds, “we will talk about the nuclear issue.”

Gary Sorman, a French economist who has written extensively on China and North Korea, warns of the risks of trusting either of them to live up to any agreements.

“Nothing can be decided in North Korea without China,” says Mr. Sorman. “North Korea is completely manipulated by China.”

As for whether the US can get North Korea to stop its nuclear program, says Sorman, “the answer is no.” The US and other countries “have no practical way of stopping this nuclear program,” he says. “We don’t know how to stop this program,” while China “has a strong interest in keeping North Korea in its divisive role.”

The best Obama can hope for, he says, "is stopping these attacks – but only for a brief period.”

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