North Korea sank the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 in protest against Seoul's refusal to provide economic aid, a senior Cheong Wa Dae official here claimed Wednesday.
The official told reporters the Lee Myung-bak administration attempted several times to arrange a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il but was unwilling to pay the price the North demanded. Incensed, the North then sank the ship and shelled the island.
The claims from the outgoing administration came a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un struck an unusually conciliatory note in his New Year's address and are being read as a warning for the incoming government not to be taken in by his rhetoric.
◆ What Price a Summit?
"The Lee administration has met several times with North Korean officials to discuss a summit," the official said. "But North Korea demanded tens of thousands of tons of rice and fertilizer in exchange and we refused."
North Korea wanted some US$500-600 million worth of rice and fertilizer aid, he said. The official did not say whether Pyongyang also wanted cash.
"The watershed moment in inter-Korean relations was the sinking of the Cheonan in March of 2010," he said. Talks were held even after the sinking, but North Korea refused to admit it was behind the attack, the official added.
◆ Show of Protest
President Lee Myung-bak in a speech on Aug. 15, 2009 said the South was ready to start talks with North Korea "any time and at any level." A week later, a North Korean delegation visited Seoul for the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong-il in 2000.
The North Korean delegation told Lee that Pyongyang was willing to hold a summit. In October that year, presidential Chief of Staff Yim Tae-hee held a secret meeting in Singapore with Kim Yang-gon, the director of the North Korean Workers Party's United Front Department. The North Koreans again demanded $500 million worth of rice and fertilizer aid.
Additional talks behind the scenes were held in the border town of Kaesong on Nov. 7 and 14 of that year, but ended without progress. "At the time, Won Tong-yon, a ranking member of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, even presented a rough draft of a summit agreement, which contained demands for tens of thousands of tons of rice and fertilizer, and we couldn't accept that," a source said.
Another source said if Seoul had agreed to provide the aid, the North would have demanded cash at every step of the process until the summit took place.
In January 2010, after the secret contacts ended and North Korea realized that it was impossible to extract any aid from Seoul, it vowed to launch a "holy retaliatory war" against the South and fired multiple artillery rounds at the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border on the West Sea.
Two months later, on March 26, the North sank the Cheonan, and in November it shelled Yeonpyeong Island. "The government could not improve relations with the North by excusing its attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island," a high-ranking government official here said.