Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on August 26, 2009
Since the early 1990s when a nuclear crisis first surfaced on the Korean peninsula, North Korea has swung between confrontation and conciliation in a game of brinkmanship with the U.S. and its allies. Now after months of confrontations with the international community, Pyongyang is in a mood to bargain again. And it appears South Korea and the U.S. will return to a dialogue table although they say they are sticking to their tough stance.
Both Washington and Seoul issued statements this week that North Korea must move towards ending its nuclear program before the international community will be open to easing sanctions tightened after Pyongyang carried out its second nuclear test in May. But talks between the two Koreas that began on August 26 to arrange reunions of families separated by the1950-53 Korean War are bound to pave the way for more serious negotiations among regional powers aimed at easing tensions in northeast Asia.
There’s no sign North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons program. That means the U.S. and its allies won’t likely to lift sanctions slapped against Pyongyang anytime soon. Nevertheless the U.S. and South Korea have been dropping hints that Pyongyang could start benefiting from limited aids and cooperative projects with South Korea once it agrees not to aggravate the situation and return to the six-nation denuclearization talks that include China, Japan and Russia as well as the U.S. and two Koreas.
North Korea has called the six-party talks dead, but it has also signaled that it is ready to compromise with the U.S. and South Korea. At the start of overtures this month, the North invited former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang to release two American journalists held since March. Also this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sent a message to South Korean President Lee Myung Bak that he wants to improve inter-Korean relations. The North also released a South Korean worker held for more than four months and pledged to resume suspended joint inter-Korean projects and the reunions of separated families.
The question is why North Korea seeks to mend ties with neighbors and the U.S. after months of belligerence, including missile tests and threats to strike the South. Analysts in Seoul believe the North now feels comfortable about the stability of Kim Jong Il’s military-backed regime. Pyongyang had resorted to saber-rattling to solidify Kim’s leadership after his grip on power was questioned following a stroke he suffered last summer.
Now that Kim has recovered from the stroke and completed groundwork for power succession to one of his sons, he can now address other important issues such as easing international isolation and improving its rickety economy. That doesn’t mean Kim has abandoned his nuclear ambition. But at least it is willing to negotiate with Washington about its nuclear program and other issues. Even if fresh round of talks begin, though, the world won’t have high hopes this time around.