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ANALYSIS

North Korea's apparent willingness to talk raises questions

A photo released by KCNA news agency on March 12, 2013, shows North Korea leader Kim Jong Un visiting the Wolnae-do Defence Detachment on the western front line.

TNS

By PAUL ALEXANDER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 16, 2015

North Korea appears to be thinking about agreeing to international talks for the first time since 2007, although what it wants, what it’s willing to give up and whom it would meet are unclear.

In the past, the North has used brinksmanship to obtain food, fuel and other aid from the West in exchange for promises to freeze or curtail its worrisome nuclear program. Each time, it has broken its promises and the aid has been cut off, with international sanctions imposed.

George W. Bush was president the last time that North Korea was willing to sit down almost eight years ago for six-party talks with South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia on its nuclear weapons.

The last North-South summit was held later in 2007, focusing on improving relations with a goal toward reunification.

Since then, Pyongyang has conducted two increasingly powerful underground nuclear tests and two failed rocket launches before finally succeeding two years ago. It has sunk a South Korean navy ship and shelled civilians on a border island. Suspected North Korean drone surveillance aircraft have been found crashed in the South, one with photos of the presidential palace.

U.S. military officials have called 2013 the most dangerous period on the peninsula since the Korean War, with rising tit-for-tat actions with the North, which threatened to use nuclear weapons on both South Korea and the U.S. mainland.

Although tensions have eased since then, the North continues to stage provocations, and the two Koreas have exchanged fire along their maritime border as recently as last fall. The possibility of similar small-scale confrontations spiraling into all-out war remains a key concern for the U.S. and South Korea.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has followed a strategy of “strategic patience” that has fundamentally meant no engagement with North Korea, which some analysts have criticized as giving North Korea time to improve its nuclear and missile technology, possibly in concert with Iran.

There has been speculation that Pyongyang no longer is willing to negotiate shelving its programs and instead wants to be accepted as a world nuclear power, possibly as a precondition for talks. Most recently, it has offered to stop its underground testing only in exchange for a halt to joint U.S.-South Korean nuclear exercises, which Washington has rejected and called a veiled threat.

The U.S. and South Korea clearly don’t trust the North, as shown by Seoul’s reluctance to take over operational control of the allies’ forces in the event of war and U.S. Forces Korea’s decision to leave behind a residual force near the demilitarized zone when most American troops are relocated to regional bases south of the capital, planned for next year.

But Washington recently said it’s now open to talks with Pyongyang, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Monday that she was willing to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with no preconditions, though both say they would bring up denuclearization. That leaves the possibility of one-on-one talks between the North and either the South or the U.S. or some tripartite arrangement.

When North Korea dropped out of the six-party talks, it swore it would never rejoin them but gave indications in 2012 and 2014 that it might be willing. There also have been unconfirmed reports that Kim may make his first foreign visit soon — to Russia.

Athough it isn’t as desperate for aid as during famine that reportedly devastated the country in 1994-98, the communist North remains one of the world’s poorest countries and likely would be looking at aid of some sort and a relaxation of sanctions and might be interested in expanding the joint economic zone arrangement with the South to bring in hard currency.

One of the more intriguing recent statements from North Korea was a vow to have reunification with the South this year — although it didn’t spell out how.

In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim said he was open to a meeting with South Korea’s president ,“depending on the mood and circumstances to be created.”

It remains unclear whether Pyongyang is willing to negotiate on the issue with the South, where sentiment for a reunified Korea remains strong, particularly as relatives separated during the Korean War age and die.

Park reiterated her desire to work toward reunification during her new year’s address Monday.

The question is whether reunification has the same definition in both countries.

It’s hard to imagine that North Korean leaders would be willing to give up their power and system, particularly since they reportedly have been telling their people, who have little to no access to news from outside the country, that as bad as things are there, they’re worse in the rest of the world.

Whatever happens, full reunification would likely take years to implement, since no one really wants a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime and the nightmares that could mean, from massive waves of refugees trying to cross the borders to possession of the North’s nuclear weapons and fissile materials.

alexander.paul@stripes.com