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North Korea Pulls Out of Military Talks With South

(Feb. 9) -South Korean Col. Moon Sang-gyun, shown yesterday before meeting with a North Korean counterpart at the Demilitarized Zone. The North withdrew today from the military talks between the Koreas (Jung Yeon-je/Getty Images). (Feb. 9) -South Korean Col. Moon Sang-gyun, shown yesterday before meeting with a North Korean counterpart at the Demilitarized Zone. The North withdrew today from the military talks between the Koreas (Jung Yeon-je/Getty Images).

North Korean military officers today abruptly exited a meeting with South Korean colonels that was intended to set the stage for higher-level talks between the two rivals and potentially a discussion about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons work, the Los Angeles Times reported (see GSN, Feb. 8).

Today was the second day of initial colonel-level talks in the Demilitarized Zone to set the stage for a meeting between the North and South Korean defense ministers addressing provocative acts by Pyongyang. The alleged 2010 torpedo attack on a South Korean warship and the shelling of the South's Yeonpyeong Island killed 50 South Koreans and renewed the specter of war on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul wants Pyongyang to take responsible measures for its attack on the island and to apologize for the sinking of the Cheonan, which the North continues to deny committing.

"The talks failed to narrow differences over the agenda for a high-level meeting," South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said. He added that officials were also not able to agree on a date for additional colonel-level talks.

The North Korean officers "unilaterally walked out of a meeting room," Kim said.

Experts said the failure of the military talks is a bad sign for the fragile detente that has ruled the peninsula since a U.N.-brokered 1953 armistice agreement halted the Korean War. Following the November artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island, the South Korean military amended its posture to allow for a more aggressive and speedy response to any future North Korean provocations.

Pyongyang has long used brinkmanship tactics to provoke crises on the peninsula in hopes of drawing economic aid and other concessions in negotiations. Conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak drastically scaled back subsidies to the North in 2008 when he decided that previous administrations' "Sunshine Policy" had failed to produce notable moves by Pyongyang toward denuclearization.

"Both official and public opinion in South Korea seem to be moving toward a position of 'enough is enough,'" Boston University international relations Professor William Keylor said. "Pyongyang's tried-and-true strategy of increasing military tension on the peninsula as a means of extracting economic aid from the South, and then agreeing to talks to reduce the tension, may have run its course" (John Glionna, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 9).

Seoul has acceded to foreign urging that inter-Korean relations stabilize, Dongguk University academic Kim Yong-hyun said. "South-North Korean relations won't be extreme again like last year," the Associated Press quoted him as saying (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press/The Hindu, Feb. 9).

While North Korea has for some time voiced its willingness to return to the six-party talks it abandoned in spring 2009, Japan, South Korea and the United States have said they would not resume the aid-for-denuclearization negotiations until they are assured of the Stalinist state's intention to shutter its nuclear weapons program. That hope was thrown into further doubt when the aspiring nuclear power unveiled a high-tech uranium enrichment plant late last year. Uranium enrichment can produce both nuclear reactor fuel and bomb-grade material.

Seoul has requested separate talks with the North to discuss its nuclear work, but Pyongyang has yet to give an answer.

"Without having the bilateral talks between the two Koreas, holding six-party talks also looks unclear now," analyst Kim Seung-hwan told Reuters (Laurence/Cho, Reuters/Yahoo!News, Feb. 9).

China, which hosts the six-party talks and is North Korea's leading benefactor, is thought by many observers to have pressed Pyongyang into meeting with the South. The longtime alliance between the two communist nations could be fraying to some degree, with Pyongyang's repeated provocations placing the Chinese government in an uncomfortable position with the international community, the Wall Street Journal reported today.

Continued Chinese economic assistance to the North could be at risk if Pyongyang fails to show that is done with its brinkmanship tactics, International Crisis Group Korea analyst Dan Pinkston said. "The key question is, will this be perceived by the Chinese as a legitimate and sincere effort by the North to reconcile with the South?"

"We kept our position that we are willing to hold a high-level military talk if North Korea accepts our agenda and level of official," the South Korean Defense Ministry said today in a statement (Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9).

Separately, a North Korean dissident group yesterday said a brigade of North Korean military uranium mine workers in mid-January stopped working after being deprived of sustenance for three days due to a lack of new food supplies, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

"Security authorities were immediately sent to the unit to clamp down on the soldiers refusing to work," said Kim Seung-kwang, head of the South Korea-based defector organization North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity. He cited a high-ranking North Korean officer as the source of the information (Sam Kim, Yonhap News Agency, Feb. 8).

Elsewhere, North Korea requested a meeting with U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth during his trip to China early last month, the Asahi Shimbun reported today.

Washington turned down the proposal due to the short duration of Bosworth's stay in Beijing.

Pyongyang wants to unofficially meet with U.S. officials late next month in Europe, an insider said. Though a U.S. think tank would probably act as the facilitating third-party, the North is willing to dispatch its No. 2 representative to the six-party talks, Ri Gun, should any other ex-senior U.S. officials also participate (Yoshihiro Makino, Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 9).

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