North Korea, who shelled Yeonpyeong Island and sank the Navy corvette Cheonan last year, has now shifted its attitude; the communist regime has been asking to resume the dialogue with South Korea in a series of statements including a New Year’s editorial in its state-run media urging the resolution of inter-Korean tensions. Its repeated proposals for the resumption of inter-Korean talks continued until the weeks leading up to the U.S.-China summit. It even proposed high-level military talks to discuss the two military provocations just before the summit meeting between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
As shown in the result of meetings between the leaders of the U.S. and China, the two countries both feel the need for inter-Korean relations to improve either ahead of or along with the resumption of stalled six-party nuclear talks.
In that sense, dovetailed nicely was the North Korea’s shift in tactics. By continuing to call for talks with Seoul, Pyongyang is trying to avoid international pressure by seemingly taking a conciliatory approach. If South Korea rejects the offer for talks, the North can blame the South for refusing to ease tensions, and if Seoul accepts, Pyongyang will try to solve its economic matters to remove the biggest obstacle in Kim Jong-il’s smooth power transfer to his son, rather than focusing the fundamental problems in inter-Korean relations.
For the South, however, there is no way to know what North Korea will say about the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks in the meetings. Now the North has accepted, however, at least one of the South’s preconditions for the talks, upcoming dialogues will be the watershed to determine the direction of future inter-Korean relations. If the North continues to deny the provocations and refuse apologies over them, demands something unacceptable, or treat the talks as a temporary ruse to get more leverage, no progress could be made.
The key issue is whether Pyongyang will apologize for the provocations. If the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are not even mentioned in inter-Korean talks, we could not approve such talks. The North should bear in mind that the South is the only country in the world with the ability and willingness to help. Pyongyang should also recognize that it can reach out to Washington only through Seoul.
The government must make sure the North Korea and its only ally China understand that what is needed for successful talks is their will to tackle the fundamental obstacles that have led to the aggravation on inter-Korean relations. Seoul, meanwhile, needs to iron out its strategy to make the most of this opportunity.
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