South and North Korea’s first attempt at a breakthrough in reconciliation in more than four months resulted instead Wednesday in a breakdown in talks, casting serious doubts about attempts at reviving talks on North Korea's burgeoning nuclear program.
The chief South Korean negotiator said the three-member North Korean team got up abruptly and walked out of the room without shaking hands and without comment. The meeting in the "truce village" of Panmunjom was meant to prepare for talks ahead of negotiations between defense ministers.
After having been expected to go on talking about items for the defense ministers’ agenda, the North Koreans returned from a lengthy lunch break on their side of the North-South line at Panmunjom. They were evidently armed with instructions to reject the South Korean position and go home.
The impasse that ended more than one and a half days of talks raised the question of how or if the two sides can somehow get over this hurdle, move on to talks between defense ministers, then go to talks between high-level civilian officials. All those talks would be a prelude to returning to six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in December 2008.
One fear here is that North Korea, by going through the motions of wanting to talk, then walking out, is setting the stage for another nuclear test in the spring.
“I believe North Korea is preparing for the next nuclear test,” says Baek Seung-joo, director of the center for security and strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses reflecting the assessment of some intelligence analysts.
Is North Korea setting the stage for nuclear tests?
North Korea staged its first nuclear test in October 2006 during a break in six-party talks while George W. Bush as president was pursuing what the North saw as a hard-line policy. South Korea’s government then was led by a liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, dedicated to the sunshine policy of reconciliation initiated by his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, in 1998.
Mr. Roh and Mr. Kim, both of whom died in 2009, each met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang for historic summits intended to settle inter-Korean enmity dating from the Korean War, but North and South Korea have been increasingly hostile since the conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected president in December 2007. North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009.
Mr. Lee has said he, too, would be willing to meet Kim Jong-il but has insisted talks should be “serious” – that North Korea should not only apologize for the Yellow Sea attacks but should show real signs of giving up its nuclear weapons program. Instead, North Korea has said it’s nearing completion of a 20-megawatt reactor for making warheads with highly enriched uranium, an advance over the plutonium devices it’s produced with its aging five-megawatt reactor.
Still, some analysts say eventually the two Koreas have to return to the table – though how and when is not at all clear.
It was at North Korea’s request last month to discuss military issues between defense ministers that the two sides opened the talks at the colonel level in an effort to overcome months of near-crisis as a result of two bloody attacks in or near disputed waters in the Yellow Sea. First came the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors perished and then the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November that killed two marines and two civilians.
North Korea’s resistance to South Korean demands for an apology for those incidents, for acceptance of "responsibility" for the deaths, for damage to property, and for a promise to refrain from future “provocations” stiffened during the last talks, the first since North and South Korean colonels met briefly on Sept. 30. The South Koreans said they wanted to get all those items on the defense ministers’ agenda, according to the South Korean version, but the North Koreans insisted on talking about a halt to military actions in general.
A tug of war
“This is just the beginning,” says Paik Hak-soon,” a long-time North Korea scholar at the Sejong Institute. “They are both playing a tug of war. They will have some time and then they will continue negotiations again."
Mr. Paik describes this week’s talks as “a kind of show for their respective constituencies” – that is, for the North Koreans to demonstrate their toughness for North Korean hard-liners and for the South Koreans to demonstrate Lee’s resolve not to compromise.
Still, analysts wonder how Lee can accept anything less than a plausible apology from North Korea in view of the outrage provoked by the Yeonpyeong shelling, the first attack on South Korean soil since the signing of the armistice at Panmunjom in July 1953.
“They just can’t come up with a statement saying it’s unfortunate these things happened,” says Choi Jong-gun, a political science professor at Yonsei University. “That will backfire against this government. The conservatives will harshly criticize the government.”
Others, however, call for compromise. “The current government believes the hard-line policy is working,” says Moon Jung-in, a professor in Yonsei’s Graduate School of International Studies. “I would not put any preconditions on dialogue. Let is discuss all things” – rather than insist on an apology.
Colonel Moon, briefing on what transpired at the talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, said that the North Korean side had stuck fast to its repeated denials of involvement in the Cheonan incident, calling its sinking “a fabrication” of South Korea’s “anti-North Korea policy.”
As for the Yeonpyeong shelling, he said, the North Koreans blamed the South Koreans for shelling first.
“We had a good attitude,” said Moon, describing the South Koreans’ silence as the North Koreans strode out of the room. “We were cool and maintained our composure.”