UN Security Council Statement Puts Lee in a Bind

      July 12, 2010 12:26

      President Lee Myung-bak has to decide how to respond to North Korea's sinking of the Cheonan after the UN Security Council on Friday failed to point definitely to the North as the culprit. The main area of concern is the resumption of six-party talks on the denuclearization of North Korea.

      China called for prompt resumption of the talks, and a North Korean spokesman on Saturday said the country will "make consistent efforts to conclude a peace agreement and achieve denuclearization through the six-party talks."

      The United States, which had been adamant that there would be no six-party talks without resolution of the Cheonan incident, has yet to respond officially, but it cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to China's proposal of restarting the talks.

      South Korean government official said there are two conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks: Pyongyang must be sincere about denuclearization and it must apologize for the torpedo attack on the Cheonan. However, the real focus seems to be the former. "As the Cheonan incident was internationally wrapped up by the UN Security Council presidential statement, the priority in inter-Korean relations will be North Korea's sincerity."

      In other words, although there can be no normalization of inter-Korean relations without an apology, it is possible to resume the six-party talks. Seoul could adopt a two-track strategy employing different policies at international level and at inter-Korean level over the Cheonan sinking.

      Lee seems determined to get an apology from North Korea. In a speech in late May, he said an apology and punishment of those responsible are the North’s top priorities. If the six-party talks resume without these basic steps, the political pressure for Lee would be enormous, and critics could argue that Lee traded the lives of 46 soldiers for a one-page resolution.

      Resumption of the six-party talks would inevitably mitigate international pressure on North Korea, which is then even more unlikely to agree to the South's demands. If Pyongyang continues with its traditional strategy of making overtures to the U.S. while maintaining a hard line toward South Korea with the backing of China, Seoul’s influence would only shrink further.

      This is why Lee may try for yet another "grand bargain" later this year to get an apology from the North. Whether that will ever be forthcoming remains to be seen.

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