Analysis: Despite offer of talks, North Korea's motives suspect
January 21, 2011
SEOUL — South Korea’s agreement this week to accept North Korea’s proposal to hold high-level military talks might signal an easing of the acute tensions that have roiled the divided peninsula for months.
For decades, Pyongyang has engaged in a familiar pattern of provocation and retreat. At times, it has staged violent attacks against South Korea and then sought rewards in exchange for promises to desist. Or it has promised to curtail its nuclear development program in exchange for American and South Korean aid, only to renege once the aid was delivered.
Not surprisingly, given the Stalinist regime’s isolation and erratic history, analysts who specialize in the Koreas are divided over the significance of Pyongyang’s latest overture. Some think North Korea is serious about talks this time, others roll their eyes at what they regard as yet another ploy — and some from both camps believe that, whatever Pyongyang’s motives, Seoul and Washington would be wise to try to parlay the overture into a serious return to broad-based negotiations.
The agreement by the South Korean government on Thursday to prepare to hold defense talks with North Korea constituted the first formal engagement by the two sides since Pyongyang’s artillery attack on a South Korean island in November, which followed the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship last March.
And it coincided with a U.S.-China summit in Washington this week in which the White House pressured North Korea’s longtime benefactor to rein in Pyongyang’s aggression or risk an expansion of the American military footprint across Asia — a development Beijing would be loathe to see.
Whether these initial discussions could lead to the resumption of broader, six-party talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program, involving the U.S. and China directly, is unknown.
Baek Seung Ju, chief of the Center for Security and Strategy for the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said he believes North Korea is not being sincere in its latest pleas for peace, and that this “is not so different from its previous pattern.”
Nevertheless, Baek said he thinks Seoul is wise to take advantage of the offer the talk, “rather than shying away from conversation.”
The South Korean government, he said, “needs to emphasize our agreeing to talk does not imply we forgive the North’s wrongdoings, but rather we are here to probe them.”
Longtime Seoul-based journalist Michael Breen — who also sees the olive branch being extended as “the same old crap” from North Korea — also believes that South Korea and the U.S. would be wrong not to see what comes out of another round of talks with leaders of the reclusive regime.
Robert Carlin, who worked for more than a decade as chief of the Northeast Asia division in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence, where one of his jobs was analyzing North Korea’s official statements, said he believes that the North is showing “a serious willingness to engage.”
“If there is a window of opportunity open right now for beginning an exploratory, pre-negotiations period, it won’t stay open forever,” he said.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Jong-joo made it clear Thursday that these initial talks should include the North’s assurances that it will take “responsible measures” not to repeat provocations such as the attack on Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan warship that left 46 South Korean sailors dead. The North has acknowledged responsibility for the island attack, but has denied having had any role in torpedoing the Cheonan.
Lee said Pyongyang had proposed talks earlier Thursday to ease tensions and “express opinions” about the two deadly attacks. Lee said South Korea would propose separate talks with North Korea about taking steps toward nuclear disarmament.
Jeung Young-tai, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification — a peace-promoting think tank in Seoul — said last week that South Korea and the U.S. were wise to force North Korea to meet a number of demands before agreeing to sit down with its leaders.
“In principle, [South Korea does] not negotiate with terrorists,” he said. “Therefore, we should not change that rule for North Korea ... which has a history of receiving economic compensation by repeating threats, like terrorists.”
But Yang Mu-jin, a South Korea-based professor at the University of North Korean Studies, disagreed.
“North Korea is different now.” he said.
As evidence of North Korea’s sincerity, Yang cited the significant drop in anti-South rhetoric in recent weeks, the fact that it has continued to provide workers to the Kaesong Industrial Complex jointly operated by the two Koreas just north of the Demilitarized Zone and the North’s agreement to restore a cross-border Red Cross phone line at the village of Panmunjom.
“The Korean peninsula is in an armistice,” Yang said. “For that reason, we should possess the basic will to have conversations and negotiations. There should be talks across a table about nuclear disarmament, the sinking of the Cheonan warship, the attack on Yeonpyeong Island and human rights in North Korea.
Yang said the groundwork for what happens next on the peninsula started with the U.S.-China discussions, predicting there will first be “inter-Korean dialogue,” followed by talks between the U.S. and North Korea and, finally, a return to the six-party talks (with China, Japan and Russia) from which the North withdrew in April 2009.
If officials from the North and South do end up sitting across from one another, he said, “we should try to find out answers, take action ... and form trust.”