Talks with N.Korea Must Tackle Substantive Issues

      January 10, 2011 12:44

      North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland in a statement on Saturday formally called for an "unconditional and early resumption of talks between the authorities of the South and the North." It added that the date, location and level of official dialogue between the two sides can be decided by bilateral agreement but proposed late January or early February for meetings between officials of the Red Cross and the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex.

      The communist country is continuing calls to resume dialogue with South Korea in a series of statements including a New Year's editorial in North Korea's state-run media urging the resolution of inter-Korean tensions.

      The reason for North Korea's shift in tactics is simple. The leaders of the U.S. and China meet on Jan. 19, and Washington and Beijing both feel the need for inter-Korean relations to improve either ahead of or along with the resumption of stalled six-party nuclear talks. By continuing to call for talks with the South, Pyongyang is trying to avoid international pressure by appearing to take a conciliatory approach. If South Korea declines to take up the offer for talks, North Korea can blame it for refusing to improve relations, and if Seoul accepts, Pyongyang will seek economic aid to remove the biggest obstacle in the way of the hereditary transfer of power to Kim Jong-un, rather than dealing with the fundamental problems in inter-Korean relations.

      But the Unification Ministry is still skeptical of the sincerity of North Korea's attitude. There is no reason for the government to rush to a response, since North Korea has yet to send any official message to the government or military. What is important is to prevent any further provocations by North Korea through diplomatic and military means. If talks are necessary for that, then there is no reason for Seoul to reject the offer.

      The key issue is whether North Korea will apologize for the provocations last year or at least guarantee that this matter will top the agenda of the talks. If the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are not even mentioned in inter-Korean dialogue, no South Korean would be willing to approve such talks.

      Once the atmosphere become ripe for a North Korean apology, the government should go even further and consider a radical counter-offer in terms of the levels and topics of the talks. That would require a very high-ranking North Korean official to make responsible comments about the two provocations. North Korea's offer for talks simply based on strategic reasons is tantamount to asking South Korea to forget about the incidents that drove inter-Korean relations to the brink of war over the past year.

      The government must make sure the public and Seoul's allies understand that what is needed is the will to tackle the fundamental obstacles that have led to the deterioration of inter-Korean relations.

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