North and South can both benefit from Korean talks

By Jeremy Laurence, Reuters

SEOUL — Military officers from rivals North and South Korea meet at their heavily fortified border Tuesday for the first inter-Korean talks since tension peaked on the peninsula late last year. Why Has the North Pushed for Talks? The North has said it wants to let “bygones be bygones” and hopes for peace on the peninsula. Pyongyang says it is ready for unconditional talks, including about two deadly attacks last year.

Analysts say the real reasons are it is coming under pressure from China and its economy is in a state of ruin. It needs aid particularly as leader Kim Jong-Il seeks the support of the political elite and the military as he prepares to hand over the leadership reins to his youngest son.

The North has also called for Red Cross talks and inter-parliamentary talks, and has sent letters to civic groups requesting dialogue on humanitarian issues. Experts say this could be a ploy to create an ideological divide in the South. What Does South Korea Stand to Gain? Initially, the South cynically dismissed Pyongyang’s push for talks as propaganda geared to extract aid, but under pressure from regional powers has agreed to bilateral talks — on its terms. However, it is unlikely the two sides will resolve any of their numerous outstanding disputes.

Seoul says it won’t fall for the North’s tactic of recent decades when it has made promises to change its ways only to renege on any deal upon the receipt of aid. The South has devised a new “grand bargain” strategy under which it will supply billions in aid and development only once the North completely dismantles its nuclear program.

Yet, Seoul benefits from talks if for no other reason than they relieve tensions. The wealthy South more than anything wants peace and stability on the peninsula. This in turn benefits its standing as a land of favorable business and investment opportunities. The South’s economy has grown at a meteoric pace over the past two decades, and is now Asia’s fourth biggest. Conflict and tensions spook markets and scare off investors. What Are the Main Issues the South Wants to Discuss? The preliminary military talks will address the sinking of the South’s Cheonan warship last March, in which the North denies involvement, and the North’s bombardment in November of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which Pyongyang says was provoked by a military exercise. The colonel-level talks will set the agenda for more senior dialogue, possibly at the ministerial level.

The South ultimately wants the North to acknowledge and apologize for the attacks. Analysts doubt the North will change its position that it didn’t sink the Cheonan and that it was provoked into shelling Yeonpyeong by a South military drill.

Seoul also wants an assurance from the North that it will desist from further “provocations,” such as military attacks, and nuclear and missile tests. The South separately wants bilateral political talks with the North to ascertain its sincerity about its pledges to denuclearize. Pyongyang has yet to respond to this request.