Walkout Clouds Prospects of Talks

Analysts say North Korea is making a show of negotiations to appease China.

militarytalks305.jpg North Korea's Col. Ri Son-Kwon (center-R) attends inter-Korean military talks in the DMZ, Feb. 9, 2011.
AFP PHOTO / South Korean Defense Ministry / KIM TAE-HYUNG

North Korea’s decision to walk away from bilateral talks with South Korea indicate that Pyongyang is unwilling to apologize for attacks on South Korea last year, derailing prospects for denuclearization on the peninsula, analysts say.

In the first official talks between the two countries in months on Wednesday, North Korean military officers stormed out over a disagreement on the agenda for an upcoming high-level conference.

Analysts said North Korea entered the talks halfheartedly after having been pressured by China to resume meetings with the South.

“North Korea’s purpose was not in having a serious effort to reduce tensions with South Korea,” said Richard Bush, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“It was merely to try to demonstrate to China that it was being more constructive than South Korea was,” he said.

“It’s all in the optics and the appearance, rather than what North Korea was willing to do,” Bush said.

Seoul has demanded that the defense talks must address North Korean artillery attacks on a South Korean island in November last year as well as the alleged sinking earlier of a naval vessel in which 46 sailors died.

Seoul has sought an apology for the artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island which killed four. North Korea denies responsibility for the attack on the Cheonan warship.

The U.S. had wanted North Korea to hold talks with its southern neighbor as a precondition for any resumption of a six-way meeting aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons drive.

Last month during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama urged China to use its influence over North Korea to tone down the rogue nation’s provocative behavior and return to talks with South Korea and the international community.

“The United States had made it very clear that any process of reengagement leading to the six-party talks would have to start with North-South talks, so the North says, ‘OK, we’ll do talks,’ but with every intention of making it impossible for those talks to succeed,”  Bush said. 

‘Going through the motions’

John Park, director of the Korean Working Group at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, called China the “driving force” behind North Korea’s outreach.

“North Korea [went] along with it to go through the motions—have something happen along the way where talks collapse or they stall. Then North Korea can go back to the Chinese and say, ‘We tried, but the South Koreans were basically part of the problem going forward.’”

Robert M. Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, agreed that Pyongyang sought the talks to ease pressure from Beijing.

“It helps to get the Chinese off their backs, to the extent that the Chinese are pushing them for a more reasonable or less provocative approach right now. I think demonstrating a willingness to talk helps check that box,” Hathaway said.

He felt North Korean negotiators had wanted to use the meeting to test Seoul’s flexibility on reaching a compromise.

“Particularly in the context of trying to take some of the Chinese pressure off, they may well have been willing to sit down … simply to test the South to see what sort of flexibility there was and whether or not the instructions of the negotiators from the ROK (Republic of Korea) had any sort of maneuvering room.”

Hathaway said it is foolish to expect flexibility or compromise from Pyongyang in any future talks.

“I don’t have any optimism whatsoever that they are going to be fruitful.”

Prospects of talks

South Korea and many other players in the region hope to ease tensions with the North in light of new revelations about Pyongyang’s expanded uranium enrichment program, which Seoul says violates disarmament pacts and UN resolutions.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan called news of the walkout unfortunate and said Washington had actively encouraged dialogue between the two Koreas as a way to reduce tensions on the peninsula.

"We are hopeful they can work out whatever differences there were and resume talks as soon as possible," Reuters quoted Lapan as saying.

But analysts said progress in future talks on Korean relations and multilateral talks on North Korean denuclearization is increasingly unlikely given the North’s walkout.

Bush said the possibility for talks “remains low.”

“[The U.S.] will support Seoul in this and continue to believe that it’s up to North Korea to demonstrate that it has ‘a serious sense of purpose,’” he said.

Park said expectations were fairly low going into the Wednesday’s talks, “but they are considered very important because right now any resumption of six-party talks is linked to an improvement in inter-Korean relations.”

Reported by Joshua Lipes.

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