South Korea has reportedly accepted North Korea’s proposal for high-level military talks. Pyongyang’s proposal came on Thursday immediately following U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Wednesday summit, which called for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization. So it appears there was prior coordination between Beijing and Pyongyang ahead of the U.S.-China summit. It also appears preparatory cross-border talks at the working-level could commence in early February. However, the two Koreas are in for some very tough discussions, and the results of the preparatory meeting will determine whether and when formal military talks take place.
It would be the first time in about three months since the two Koreas held military discussions. Last September, Pyongyang was unwilling to discuss the sinking of the Cheonan ship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
This time, Seoul’s Unification Ministry says Pyongyang proposed discussing the sinking of the South’s Cheonan ship and artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong Island.
Why the sudden seemingly conciliatory gesture?
It’s hard to know for sure, but it cannot be easily ruled out that there may be a hidden agenda behind their outward show.
Seoul, Washington and Tokyo’s conditions for the resumption of the Six Party Talks are inter-Korean dialogue to address Korean tensions and a sincere gesture to denuclearize:
1. Inter-Korean dialogue & Pyongyang’s proposal on agenda:
It does not seem likely that North Korea would easily apologize for its two attacks, and it may try to steer the focus toward establishing a special peace zone in the West Sea as agreed upon during the October 2007 Inter-Korean summit. Pyongyang may also be using the cross-border meeting as a mere show hoping to jump on the fast-track toward direct talks with Washington.
However, the upcoming cross-border talks will still be a chance for Seoul to gauge how sincere Pyongyang is in taking responsibility for its attacks and promising to restrain from further provocations.
–Yeonpyeong Island attack: North Korea has publically acknowledged shelling the South Korean island that killed soldiers and civilians, so Pyongyang could “express regret” over the incident, which could be interpreted as a form of taking responsibility.
–Cheonan ship sinking: This is a much trickier matter because Pyongyang has denied torpedoing the South Korea ship, which goes against the results of an international investigation . It seems unlikely that Pyongyang would reverse its position at the inter-Korean military talks. Instead, the regime could choose to say something along the lines that it “would continue to work together toward resolving the issue.” However, it is unclear whether this type of “flexibility” would be enough for Seoul to give the green light for Six Party Talk preparations.
2. Nuclear talks:
Seoul would also like to hold high-level cross-border talks on the North’s nuclear programs to gauge the level of Pyongyang’s sincerity to denuclearize. However, the regime has in the past refused to discuss the nuclear issue with Seoul claiming it is a matter between it and Washington. The North has typically used the “nuclear card” to elicit direct talks with the U.S.
On the surface, it appears the pieces are about to become aligned to create an environment favorable for the resumption of the Six Party Talks. But there’s still a lot work to be done before all the pieces can fall into place.