Seoul rejects an offer for talks with Pyongyang

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Seoul rejects an offer for talks with Pyongyang

As North Korea went from issuing menacing threats to mounting a charm offensive and proposing dialogue, the South Korean government showed skepticism and turned down requests for a series of talks on Sunday.

Tensions between the two Koreas escalated steadily due to the North’s continuing provocations. In addition to the nuclear and missile tests, the North threatened to attack the South Korean presidential compound. Pyongyang’s approach, however, switched radically after the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party, which took place from May 6 to 9. On the first day of the event, North Korea’s young ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a surprising proposal by saying that dialogues and negotiations are needed between the military authorities of the two Koreas.

Since then, the North has repeatedly made offers to hold a sit-down. In a joint statement issued by the North’s government, political parties and organizations on May 16, Pyongyang said it is more than willing to have a candid discussion with Seoul if it makes a proposal.

On Friday, the North’s National Defense Commission, chaired by Kim, made public a letter to the South to propose an inter-Korean military dialogue. “You will soon see our drastic measures [to reduce military tensions],” it said. On Saturday, yet another proposal was made by the North. The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces sent a message to the South Korean Defense Ministry and proposed contact in late May or early June to hold inter-Korean military talks.

The Ministry of National Defense flatly rejected the North’s repeated proposals. “As we already said toward the North Korean National Defense Commission’s public letter,” the ministry said, “our position remains unchanged that the North’s denuclearization measure is the most important prerequisite for a talk with the North.”

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the South cannot sit down at a negotiation table since the North officially denied the international community’s demand to give up nuclear arms at the party congress. “The North stipulated that it is a nuclear power,” he said. “It is the shared position of South Korea and the United States that no dialogue can take place with a nuclear-armed North.”

When Kim’s proposal for an inter-Korean military talk was first made public on May 8, the South made it clear that it was highly suspicious of the offer. “Now is time for sanctions and pressure,” a senior Seoul official said at the time. Another government source said Sunday that the position was coordinated with Washington and communicated to Beijing that there is no possibility of resuming inter-Korean talks.

Until last year, Seoul worked enthusiastically to arrange talks with Pyongyang, but that position changed this year. “The South and China were willing to sit down at a negotiation table if the North said it is willing to think about denuclearization,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “But we now cannot accept a talk offer since it staged more nuclear and missile provocations and stipulated its nuclear arms possession.”

North Korea experts said Pyongyang’s latest proposals are evidence that the strong sanctions are working, as the country has entered the spring food-shortage season. “The talks offer is likely the North’s attempt to find a way out,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

They also said the North may have other intentions for offering the talks. Cho said the offer could be a tactic to create a justification for its future provocations. “If the situation does not unfold the way it wants, the North may trigger an armed clash along the western maritime border or conduct its fifth nuclear test,” he said.

Lee Soo-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy on unification affairs, said the North may be trying to end the South’s psychological warfare tactics, which include loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts.

Other experts still said Seoul should prepare for a scenario in which negotiations on a nuclear freeze may soon begin.

“If the North offers a nuclear freeze, the United States may think the momentum for a dialogue is created,” said Park Byung-kwang, a senior researcher on Northeast Asia affairs at the Institute for National Security Strategy. “China is also keeping its stance that parallel discussions must take place on denuclearization and a peace treaty. It’s true that we cannot sit in the driver’s seat, but we must avoid a situation in which the car passes us by.”

BY KIM HYOUNG-GU, YOO JI-HYE [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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