SEOUL | South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday hinted at a return to six-party denuclearization talks, but later his point man on North Korea stressed that his key tasks next year include inducing change inside the secretive North and preparing for unification.
Speaking between appointments with his defense, unification and foreign ministers, Mr. Lee said there is “no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program diplomatically through the six-party talks.” He added that 2011 is important, as the North has vowed to become “a strong and prosperous country by 2012.”
The conservative Mr. Lee previously had balked at returning to the talks, chaired by Beijing, which started in 2003 and have been in limbo for the past two years. President Obama has been in lock step, declining to return to negotiations under a policy the allies dub “strategic patience” — waiting until sanctions force North Korea to return to the table with a real willingness to negotiate.
Strategic patience has been tested severely this year. In March, the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette, was sunk, killing 46 sailors. In November, Pyongyang jolted Washington by revealing a uranium-based nuclear program to U.S. scientists and shocked Seoul by shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilian construction workers.
Following the latest attack, Mr. Lee has faced pressure to get tough with his northern neighbor. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has reversed Seoul’s customary policy of not retaliating against Pyongyang, promising airstrikes against a future attack.
If Mr. Lee’s remarks on Wednesday indicate backing down, they will please China, which has refused to condemn North Korea’s attacks and has demanded restraint by all parties and a return to negotiations. They also may relieve some U.S. officials, reportedly concerned that future intra-Korean violence could spiral out of control.
Later Wednesday, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek spoke to reporters about his ministry’s key tasks for 2011. Defining 2010 as a “watershed” year for inter-Korean relations, he announced three policy objectives: “inducing positive change in North Korea, getting inter-Korean relations right and preparing for unification.”
He also said that for North Korea, a “Chinese-style opening would be appropriate.”
These messages look likely to antagonize. In 2007, after meeting with the North’s Kim Jong-il, then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun declared that his government would no longer seek openness or reform in the North, as such language infuriated Pyongyang.
Moreover, “reunification” was virtually a taboo word under the liberal administrations that preceded Mr. Lee into office; it was resurrected by the president in August. Since then, several international seminars on reunification have been hosted in Seoul with participants from Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. China has been conspicuously absent.
As for returning to dialogue, the Unification Ministry’s Mr. Hyun said, there are “no prerequisites or conditions,” but insisted that for negotiations to take place, the North must display “accountability, responsibility and sincerity.”
These appear unlikely. Although a South Korea-led international investigation found that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan, the North furiously denies committing the attack. This week, Northern troops who carried out the artillery strike on Yeonpyeong were shown on state television proudly discussing the action.
Pyongyang has denied responsibility for previous deadly attacks — such as a 1968 commando assault on Seoul’s presidential mansion, a 1983 bombing of the South Korean Cabinet during a visit to Rangoon, Burma, and a 1987 airliner bombing — even though North Korean operatives were captured on each occasion.
As for Washington’s and Seoul’s goal of denuclearization, North Korea watchers dismiss any possible surrender of nuclear weapon stockpiles. With Pyongyang declaring its goal of becoming “a strong and prosperous nation” by 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of national founding father Kim Il-sung — a nuclear deterrent represents both strength and a bargaining tool to leverage economic aid and hence prosperity.
“It is extremely difficult for North Korea to denuclearize,” said Kim Byung-ki, a security expert at Korea University. “If you are talking about the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it would have to be an act of political will, and that would have to come from a change in leadership.”
Still, after a deadly 2010, Seoul may be appreciating that talk beats no talk.
“North Korea desperately wants to hear from Washington and Seoul, so President Lee today reflected that kind of concern,” said Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “We do not expect a breakthrough in the nuclear program, but we want to calm down the issues.”
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