N.Korea Will Have to Work Hard to Gain South's Trust

      January 21, 2011 13:04

      North Korea on Thursday proposed "high-level" military talks to discuss the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year. The talks would mark the first time military officers from the two sides sit face to face since the attacks.

      There is no way of knowing what North Korea will say in the meetings about the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks. But now that it has accepted at least one of Seoul's preconditions for the official agenda of the talks, the upcoming dialogue will be an important opportunity to determine whether inter-Korean relations can be fundamentally transformed. If the North continues to deny any guilt over the attacks or proposes unacceptable terms, no progress can be made.

      If so, South Koreans will end up distrusting North Korea even more. Until now the North has told its starving people that normalized relations with the U.S. would solve the food shortage and economic problems. But the only country in the world with the ability and willingness to help North Korea is the South. This reality seems finally to have hit the North when Seoul halted all trade and exchanges following the sinking of the Cheonan. The only way for the North to reach out to Washington is through Seoul, and only through Washington can the doors to the wider world open.

      North Korea has kept pushing for the resumption of inter-Korean talks in the weeks leading up to the U.S.-China summit. Now it proposes high-level military talks timed with Chinese President Hu Jintao's meeting with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama. Inter-Korean relations are clearly being led by Washington and Beijing's active intervention.

      Pyongyang must not treat the upcoming inter-Korean talks as a temporary ruse to get more leverage as its standing grows smaller and smaller. If inter-Korean talks end without results because of North Korea's excessive demands, even China will find it difficult to stand by Pyongyang. The North must take a hard look at the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

      Seoul, meanwhile, needs to think about its strategy to make the most of this opportunity. While confronting North Korea over issues that may be sensitive, it must prepare to reciprocate with radical incentives if the North accepts responsibility for the attacks and takes genuine steps toward denuclearization.

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