The path away from recent violence and toward negotiations on the volatile Korean peninsula is proving rocky and uncertain, but it is still open.
The first tentative steps at reconciliation since North Korean artillery shells killed four South Koreans last November have, so far, gone nowhere. This month's highly anticipated talks between military officers, designed to pave the way for a high level military meeting, ended after two days, when Pyongyang’s delegation walked out.
The stakes are high. Without talks, inter-Korean relations will remain on ice, there will be no opportunity to dissuade Pyongyang from testing another nuclear device, and US diplomats say they see no point in resuming broader international negotiations to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Thus, “the US is trying to work with China to aid North Korea and to keep the conversation open, so eventually President Lee Myun-bak’s government will follow this path because it has no other choice,” says Park Jie-won, leader of the opposition Democratic Party’s forces in the National Assembly.
The impediment to progress? A standoff between North and South Korea over Seoul’s insistence that in any negotiations Pyongyang must acknowledge and apologize for sinking a South Korean naval vessel last March and for shelling the island of Yeonpyeong in November.
At last week’s preliminary talks, North Korea continued to deny sinking the Cheonan and killing 46 crew members, despite the finding of an international panel that a North Korean torpedo was responsible. Pyongyang has issued only regrets for the loss of civilian life on Yeonpyeong.
“North Korea did not show the level of sincerity that we had expected” at the meeting, says Kim Kiwoong, director general of the policy office at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which manages relations with North Korea.
“North Korea must be sincere about no more provocation,” Mr. Kim adds. “We must have talks based on such foundations if they are to have any outcome.”
Behind the scenes, say Korean officials, the United States has been urging Seoul to accept North Korea’s offer to restart talks after a series of military maneuvers that signaled South Korea’s readiness for an armed response to any further attack.
A little nudge
At their summit last month, US President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao said in a joint statement that they had “agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step.”
“South Korea was originally going to reject talks with the North, but because the US made a strong request, we felt it was important to accept a conversation,” says Dong Yongsuen, an expert on North Korea with the Samsung Economic Research Institute.
Seoul is wary of being caught in a dead end, however. “North Korea wants these talks to create the chance of restarting six-party talks so that they can talk to the Americans, that’s all,” worries one senior South Korean official.
The six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in return for aid and diplomatic recognition by the US have been stalled since 2007.
Though Washington has publicly supported Seoul’s demand for an apology from North Korea, and a pledge it will not repeat last year’s provocations, it is clear the US would like the government here to be liberal in how it interprets what would, at best, be a half-hearted North Korean statement.
The government “is prepared to construe” a suitable North Korean formulation as an apology, believes Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the US. “If they continue to balk they might lose their majority support among the public,” Professor Han suggests.
Split on public opinion
The South Korean electorate is – as ever – split over policy toward the North.
The Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents “have turned public opinion quite a bit against North Korea,” says Daniel Pinkston, an analyst here with the International Crisis Group think tank. Even government critics “are totally exasperated with North Korean behavior,” he adds.
At the same time, voters “don’t want these incidents exaggerated,” says Kim Dae-joong, a columnist with the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily. “Because if we retaliated it would bring all out war, and people do not want that again,” he explains.
After months of tension “people are beginning to feel that enough is enough,” says Paik Hak-soon, a political analyst at the Sejong Institute, a prominent think tank. “Now the government is under heavy pressure from the US to lower tensions, and pressure from the public, so it has to find an exit strategy” through talks with the North.
Despite the North Korean walkout two weeks ago, “it is too early to say whether the talks have been suspended and will resume, or whether they have broken down,” says Mr. Kim at the Unification Ministry.
Dr. Dong believes Pyongyang’s abrupt exit was part of “an emotional game. They realize South Korea is getting more flexible so they are playing a game to get what they want,” he says. “This is a process, and it’s not over yet.”
Donald Kirk contributed to this article.