Lee’s intriguing six-party remark

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Lee’s intriguing six-party remark

President Lee Myung-bak yesterday stressed the role of six-party talks as a tool to denuclearize North Korea, suggesting that Seoul is loosening its opposition to going back to the negotiating table.

“North Korea is aiming to be a ‘powerful and prosperous nation’ by 2012, so we should realize the abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear [ambition] next year through the six-party talks,” said Lee in a briefing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on its agenda for next year.

The government had earlier demanded that the North make a credible move to abandon its nuclear program as a prerequisite for the resumption of the talks, which have been suspended since Pyongyang walked out in April 2009.

The South’s demand became more insistent after the North’s provocations this year, including the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last month. Having six-party talks without discernible change on North Korea’s part to become a responsible member of the international community would only let the regime get around its bad behavior, Seoul had said until very recently.

Some analysts said the government may be willing to talk to its communist neighbor because it’s worried about rapid progress in the North’s nuclear weapons program.

North Korea has vowed to become a “powerful and prosperous nation” by 2012, when the autocratic regime marks the centennial of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. Some analysts suspect that a major development of its nuclear capability will be the proof of achieving that goal.

That the opinions of the United States and China have converged toward reopening the talks may also be putting pressure on Seoul, analysts said. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Seoul’s aggressiveness in responding to the North’s attacks is drawing concern from Washington.

“I think the pressure has been already applied on the government,” said Haksoon Paik, senior fellow at Sejong Institute. Paik said the Yeonpyeong shelling, which killed four South Koreans including two civilians, has served as a clear wake-up call to surrounding nations that another war on the peninsula is possible. Reducing tension in the region will be a major topic during a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington on Jan. 19.

“China and North Korea are coordinating with each other in such a direction, but South Korea is only flexing its muscles, saying it’s not afraid of a war,” said Paik. “That has concerned the U.S.”

Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun reported yesterday that the U.S. and China had reached a tentative agreement that inter-Korean talks should come before a six-party meeting, which was proposed by China last month. The paper said that it was tantamount to Washington and Beijing agreeing to press forward with six-party talks but in a way that saves face for Seoul.

Yang Moo-jin, a North Korean studies professor at Kyungnam University, said it was still too early to declare Seoul’s volte-face on six-party talks with President Lee’s remark. Yang said the government needed to further clarify which comes first: improvement in inter-Korean relations or talks.

President Lee said during the Foreign Ministry briefing that diplomacy alone was insufficient and a strong defense and united public awareness of national security should become the foundations of stabilizing the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, “unification” will be a key word for ministries dealing with the North next year. The Foreign Ministry said forging an international consensus toward peaceful unification would be one of its major policy goals for 2011.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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