Hopes for Inter-Korean Defense Ministers' Talks

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Hopes for Inter-Korean Defense Ministers' Talks

It is most unfortunate that recent rounds of inter-Korean talks have given the impression that important issues are being dodged. In some talks, even points specified in earlier agreements have not been honored. In the second round of Red Cross talks, which ended two days ago, the two Koreas agreed to exchange more delegations of separated families, locate separated family members, and allow family members to exchange letters. Unfortunately, however, discussion of more important issues such as the establishment of a permanent meeting place for reunions and the proper confirmation of the whereabouts of separated family members has been pushed back to the next round of talks.

During the first round of Red Cross talks, the two sides decided to establish a meeting place for separated families and specified that "concrete issues will be discussed and decided in talks to be held immediately after the return of all unconverted long-term prisoners to the North." The second-round talks in fact took place 20 days after the repatriation of these prisoners by the South, and to make matters worse, the establishment of a meeting place has still not been agreed upon. This is tantamount to a breach of the original agreement.

In a joint statement released during the visit of Kim Yong-sun, North Korean Workers' Party secretary, the South announced that separated family members would be located by the end of this year. However, with the recent Red Cross talks, it has become clear that it will not be possible to fulfill this promise, at least not before the end of the year.

It is wrong for the government to misrepresent its negotiation goals, as if they were established facts, in order to camouflage the fact the North is dictating the pace of talks. On the other hand the North is also adopting the wrong attitude if it attempts to reap benefits by avoiding fundamental issues, such as the systematization of reunions of separated families and the fostering of trust in the military sector, and deals only with secondary issues.

The North has already fixed the agenda for the inter-Korean defense ministers' talks taking place on Cheju Island today, saying that they will cover "military issues concerning the linkage of the Seoul-Sinuiju railway and the opening of the road between Kaesong of North Korea and Munsan of South Korea." It is unclear, therefore, how seriously the proposals to be raised by the South -- concerning building up military trust and easing military tensions -- will be discussed. If the North demands large-scale food assistance in the working-level contacts for inter-Korean economic cooperation being held in Seoul over the same period but does not display corresponding enthusiasm in the defense ministers' talks, public opinion in the South is bound to cool quickly. Without some kind of confirmation that the North and South are approaching fundamental issues in good faith, we cannot expect a positive outcome from the talks on economic cooperation.

Since the June 15 Joint Declaration after the inter-Korean summit, the mood of rapprochement on the peninsula has soared sky-high. Now is the time to tackle fundamental issues carefully and come up with concrete plans that will benefit both the North and the South. It is reasonable to expect regular reunions of separated families and practical military measures that will ease tensions across the DMZ.

Only then can South Koreans dispel their anxieties and put their faith in the government. They will even be happy to open their purses, if necessary. The North should, therefore, do away with the impression that it always balks at dealing with fundamental issues.

by Bae Myong-bok

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