North Korea today formally offered direct talks with the South, but Seoul demanded that Pyongyang admit its guilt in last year's attacks on a warship and an island prior to bilateral discussions taking place, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Jan. 7).
Pyongyang has insisted it is innocent in the March sinking of the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, and has defended its November artillery strike that killed four people on Yeonpyeong Island.
In its official proposal for talks, the North suggested a working-level meeting on January 27 to set the ground for subsequent higher-level talks on joint economic initiatives, said Pyongyang's state-run media and the South Korean Unification Ministry.
Seoul rejected the offer today as a standard ploy to collect economic assistance and to create divisions in the South.
"North Korea has committed this kind of behavior dozens of times," a Unification Ministry statement said.
Seoul insisted its Stalinist opponent must acknowledge its wrongdoing in last year's incidents and promise to halt such activities. "We are proposing a South-North Korean government meeting" to ascertain Pyongyang's commitment to inter-Korean peace, the ministry said.
Pyongyang had not responded to Seoul's offer, the South said (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Jan. 10).
"We do not want to see the present South Korean authorities pass the five-year term of their office idly without North-South dialogue," Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said on Saturday in remarks detailed by the Korean Central News Agency. "There is neither conditionality in the North's proposal for dialogue nor need to cast any doubt about its real intention."
Pyongyang is well known for engaging in brinkmanship tactics such as its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island before offering a more diplomatic approach by calling for resumed negotiations in hopes of drawing food and economic assistance from other states, according to the Los Angeles Times. Under the hawkish Lee Myung-bak administration, the South has refused to award concessions to the aspiring nuclear power, arguing they encourage further hostile behavior.
The North has already this year underlined the centrality of better ties with the South and suggested "unconditional and early" direct talks. South Korea and the United States have said they would not back such bilateral meetings unless the North carried out measures including admitting guilt in the March sinking of the Cheonan. The two allies have also called for North-South talks on nuclear issues, which Pyongyang has refused in the past (John Glionna, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9).
"Putting the nuclear issue to inter-Korean discussion is something that has been under constant review by the government," an unidentified high-ranking South Korean official said yesterday in a Yonhap News Agency report. "To stop the North's nuclear development, the issue has to be discussed between the two Koreas" (Yonhap News Agency I, Jan. 9).
Since pulling out of the six-nation nuclear talks in April 2009, North Korea has carried additional new nuclear and missile tests. Last November, it unveiled an advanced uranium enrichment facility it had secretly built at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Pyongyang, though, has sought for more than a year the relaunch of the aid-for denuclearization talks that also involve China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
Meanwhile, Seoul and Tokyo took the landmark step today of agreeing to increase the scope of bilateral military collaboration as a response to the North's increasingly provocative actions, Reuters reported.
"South Korea and Japan will cooperate closely, agreeing that the recent series of North Korea provocative acts, such as the Yeonpyeong artillery shelling and the disclosure of its uranium enrichment program, is not acceptable and seriously disturbs the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region," the South Korean Defense Ministry stated following a meeting of the two nations' defense chiefs.
The two Asian powers are on the path to inking their first armed forces agreement, which would allow the nations to assist one another's militaries in peacetime endeavors, Yonhap reported. News services say the two sides could ink the agreement in 2011 (Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, Jan. 10).
Elsewhere, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is slated to visit China this week for talks on the North as part of preparations for this month's summit between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, Yonhap reported.
The North Korean nuclear impasse is anticipated to be a central topic at the two leaders' meeting, White House officials say (Hwang Doo-hyong, Yonhap News Agency II, Jan. 7).
As North Korea's chief benefactor, China is seen by the United States and its allies as key to resolving the impasse. Washington has called on Beijing to adopt a more critical stance toward Pyongyang.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Saturday said Beijing assisted in ensuring that the November artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island did not erupt into heightened conflict, Agence France-Presse reported.
"We recognize that China played a constructive role in lessening tensions on the peninsula in the latter part of last year," Gates said to journalists en route to a high-profile meeting with defense leaders in Beijing (see related GSN story, today).
"I think one of our goals is to see if we can get out ahead of these periodic provocations by the North Koreans and bring greater stability to the peninsula," Gates said. "We have a mutual interest in that" (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Jan. 8).