Rare dialog between divided Koreas set for Wednesday

Nuclear negotiations are unlikely to be on the table as North Korea blows hot and cold over US-South Korea war games due later this month.

Jon Chol Jin/AP
Visitors watch photos at the national photo exhibition on the occasion of the Feb. 16, birthday of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, at the People's House of Culture in Pyongyang, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014.

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In a reversal of its recent bellicose stance, North Korea is apparently the main instigator for rare high-level talks scheduled to be held Wednesday between the two Koreas. 

There is no fixed agenda for the meeting, and the two countries – divided in the aftermath of World War II – are expected to discuss family reunions and annual South Korea-US military drills, reports Reuters. If the talks take place, they would be the weightiest official dialog between the Koreas since 2007.

That's a big "if." As Time reports, “the North is prone to sudden U-turns.” Earlier this month North Korea agreed to, then threatened to cancel scheduled family reunions, citing a US military sortie. And on Monday, it withdrew an invitation for a US official to travel to North Korea, potentially to secure the release of an American prisoner held there, Kenneth Bae. In September, a separate proposed round of reunions was canceled.

"It's premature to say whether this will lead to any breakthrough or policy change," Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, told Agence France-Presse. He noted that if the talks happen, regardless of their outcome, it would be "meaningful."

"A clearer answer will come after the meeting, but it will provide an opportunity for both sides to read the minds of their leaders," Mr. Kim said.

According to The Associated Press, “it's unlikely that North Korea will halt the reunions this time because it needs improved ties with South Korea to help attract foreign investment and aid.”

South Korea’s deputy national security adviser will attend Wednesday’s talks, while North Korea plans to send a senior Worker’s Party official. North Korea’s expected demands include resuming a joint tourism project, increasing humanitarian aid, and reduced US-South Korean joint military drills, a South Korean academic Yoo Ho-Yeol told the AP.

When it comes to investment, Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter argues that North Korea may be trying to diversify its dependence on China, and the next logical place to look is South Korea.

Pyongyang plays politics with family reunions: a sadistic heartbreaker for elderly Koreans yearning to see their long-lost kin, if only once and briefly.

But business seems to be another matter: Bring it on….

Yet, [North Korean leader Kim Jung-un] needs to depend less on China, so where else can he turn? Russia is iffy, despite the rail project – whose costs it seems keen to share. In 2012 Moscow finally wrote off North Korea’s accumulated Soviet-era debts of $10 billion. Another $1 billion is to be converted to 20-year loans for energy, education and healthcare, but nothing has been heard of this.

That leaves South Korea. Maybe the Young Marshal has finally grasped that fiery menaces and sabotaging Kaesong, as he did last spring, isn’t the most sensible approach to a richer cousin whose current leader is offering “trustpolitik”. Then again, the North’s persistent cynical game-playing over family reunions is a reminder how hard that trust will be to build.

The Christian Science Monitor noted last month that since taking power over “the world’s most secretive” nation in 2011, leader Kim Jung-un has yet to meet with any world leaders, and many North Korea observers are preoccupied by how little is known about Mr. Kim and what drives him.

“Purges in the North rose in the past year, and the number of public executions, which had been falling, doubled,” the Monitor reports.

To be sure, the 30-something leader (no one seems to know his precise age) faces a difficult conundrum. It is one he inherited from his grandfather and father: North Korea must open and reform to become economically viable. Yet real change will undercut the system of cult loyalty that provides the rationale for the Kim family's existence. Change could bring collapse.

"We don't know and maybe never knew what balance in the DPRK [North Korean ruling party] looks like, but we can now say this is not balance," says Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, speaking of [Kim’s uncle] Mr. Jang's assassination. "A peaceful outcome is harder to see. North Korea is pushing the peninsula towards confrontation."

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