Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let's Talk North Korea for a Minute

Let's Talk North Korea for a Minute

Many have been encouraged by South Korea’s agreement this week to accept North Korea’s proposal to hold high-level military talks. The hope is that it might signal an easing of the acute tensions that have roiled the divided peninsula for months.

But history teaches us to be a bit skeptical.

Pyongyang has consistently and predictably engaged in a pattern of provocation and retreat which has become all too familiar. At times, it has promised to curtail its nuclear development program in exchange for American and South Korean aid, only to renege once the aid was delivered or it has staged violent and deadly attacks against South Korea and then sought rewards in exchange for promises to desist.

Not surprisingly, given the history, those following the developments in the Koreas seem to be divided over Pyongyang’s latest overture. Some think North Korea is serious about talks this time, others roll their eyes at what they regard as yet another ploy — and some from both camps believe that, whatever Pyongyang’s motives, Seoul and Washington would be wise to try to parlay the overture into a serious return to broad-based negotiations.

This agreement by the South Korean government to prepare to hold defense talks with North Korea is the first formal commitment by the two sides since Pyongyang’s artillery attack on a South Korean island in November and the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship last March. It also notably coincides with a U.S.-China summit in Washington this week in which the White House pressured North Korea’s longtime benefactor to rein in Pyongyang’s aggression or risk an expansion of the American military footprint across Asia (a development Beijing would detest seeing).

Whether these initial discussions could lead to the resumption of broader, six-party talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program, involving the U.S. and China directly, is unknown.
Even if this is just another stunt by the North Koreans in an attempt to gain notoriety and foreign aid, it would be smart of the South Koreans to take advantage of the offer to talk as long as the South Korean Government emphasizes that this agreement is not a “de facto” forgiving of the resent bad actions by the North. The talks should only be a platform to explore where agreement and cooperation may eventually be achieved.

Longtime Seoul-based journalist Michael Breen — who also sees the olive branch being extended as “the same old crap” from North Korea — also believes that South Korea and the U.S. would be wrong not to see what comes out of another round of talks with leaders of the Stalinist regime.

Robert Carlin, who worked as chief of the Northeast Asia division in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence, where one of his jobs was analyzing North Korea’s official statements, said he believes that the North is showing “a serious willingness to engage.” “If there is a window of opportunity open right now for beginning an exploratory, pre-negotiations period, it won’t stay open forever,” he said.

There are some people who oppose these talks without forcing North Korea to meet a number of demands before agreeing to sit down with its leaders. “In principle, [South Korea does] not negotiate with terrorists,” Jeung Young-tai, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification said. “Therefore, we should not change that rule for North Korea ... which has a history of receiving economic compensation by repeating threats, like terrorists.”

Still others had a different opinion. Yang Mu-jin, a South Korea-based professor at the University of North Korean Studies, disagreed. “North Korea is different now.” he said. As evidence of North Korea’s sincerity, Yang cited the significant drop in anti-South rhetoric in recent weeks, the fact that it has continued to provide workers to the Kaesong Industrial Complex jointly operated by the two Koreas just north of the Demilitarized Zone and the North’s agreement to restore a cross-border Red Cross phone line at the village of Panmunjom.
“The Korean peninsula is in an armistice,” Yang said. “For that reason, we should possess the basic will to have conversations and negotiations. There should be talks across a table about nuclear disarmament, the sinking of the Cheonan warship, the attack on Yeonpyeong Island and human rights in North Korea.

Yang said the groundwork for what happens next on the peninsula started with the U.S.-China discussions, predicting there will first be “inter-Korean dialogue,” followed by talks between the U.S. and North Korea and, finally, a return to the six-party talks (with China, Japan and Russia) from which the North withdrew in April 2009.

If officials from the North and South do end up sitting across from one another, he said, “we should try to find out answers, take action ... and form trust.”

That sounds very good, if a little “Wizard of Oz-ish” to me. I agree they should follow up on any chance to talk instead of argue or fight but to ever, ever take the word of the North Koreans after 60 years of failure to be able to trust them seems kind of stupid to me.

Live Long and Prosper....

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