Military Demarcation Line sign between North and South Korea

Military Demarcation Line sign between North and South Korea (Source: UPI)

Although high-level military talks between South and North Korea are not set to begin until February, the Six-Party Talks nations have all begun to consider the denuclearization talks that must follow. For South Korea, the Six-Party Talks cannot resume without a North Korea commitment to shed its nuclear ambitions. As President Lee Myung-bak’s top security adviser, Chun Yung-woo said on Thursday:

“Six-party talks resumed without the commitment to abandon nuclear programs will merely be talks for the sake of talks and a venue for North Korea to buy time [...] If the sincerity is confirmed, we will then resume the six-party talks and discuss in which order and through which plan (denuclearization) will be achieved.”

The South is also seeking a UN Security Council debate on North Korea’s uranium enrichment facilities, and sought to raise the issue with US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, in Korea as part of a regional tour, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin, in town to discuss the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Steinberg characterized the US and South Korea as being “as close as sticky rice cake.” The Christian Science Monitor reports that the purpose of Steinberg’s visit was to “coordinate conditions” for resuming the Six-Party Talks. He confirmed the US position in a press conference:

“In order to move forward, North Korea does need to demonstrate that it is sincerely prepared to step back from provocations and to engage in a meaningful dialogue that will lead to concrete steps to deal with its nuclear program.”

[via NK News]

For their part, China’s chief envoy for North Korean nuclear issues Wu Dawei sat down to talk with his Japanese counterpart, Shinsuke Sugiyama, about resuming the Six-Party Talks.

Barking up the wrong tree

Protests in South Korea following North Korea's 2006 nuclear test

Protests in South Korea following North Korea's 2006 nuclear test (Source: LIFE)

Few are optimistic about the possible return of the talks:

“We expect another nuclear test this year,” says Kim Tae-woo, a longtime senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “South Korea will not easily accept six-party talks.”

B.R. Myers, professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan and author of “The Cleanest Race,” concurs:

“Rather than waste more time with the six-party format, Seoul and Washington need to work hard to assuage Chinese fears of a unified peninsula. I don’t believe that Beijing is as terrified of North Korean refugees as all that.” Should they pursue the six-party talks format, however, Myers sees more of the same ahead. “Everyone first needs to realize that the regime in Pyongyang cannot surrender national pride in return for an aid package and hope to stay in power,” he said. “Denuclearization would mean political suicide for Kim Jong-il. We must stop hoping that he will be too stupid to realize this.” [...] “A third nuclear test is just what Pyongyang needs,” he said. “It can be presented to the North Korean people as a great triumph regardless of the actual yield; it will undermine investor confidence in South Korea, and make life difficult for President Lee; it will put more pressure on Washington to negotiate.”

US Concerns

Nukes of Hazard notes President Obama’s firmer tone on North Korea in his State of the Union Address:

It sends a very clear message – that Washington and Seoul stand firmly united, which also has not always been true in the past. Washington and Seoul have been deeply divided on North Korea in past administrations. Pyongyang has also consistently and constantly tried to drive a wedge between the allies and we have seen such movements recently.

Concerns about North Korea are also growing in the Pentagon, where officials this week announced that they are looking at bolstering their forces in East Asia. In an interview with the Financial Times, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said:

“There’s little doubt in my mind, unless North Korea is deterred, that sometime in the next, I’m not sure but, five to 10 years, the provocations … will continue at a much higher threat level, which could include a nuclear-capable ICBM.”

In addition to military concerns, Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University professor who visited the Yongbyon nuclear complex in November expressed “surprise” that what he saw was “so modern and sophisticated.”

Whither military talks?

A South Korean Marine watches North Korean territory through binoculars during a military exercise in 2009

A South Korean Marine watches North Korean territory through binoculars during a military exercise in 2009 (Source: AP)

Talk of  resuming the Six-Party Talks comes while the inter-Korean military talks have yet to begin. With a possible start date of Feb 11, the North and South have yet to settle on whether there are pre-conditions on their discussions with both sides backpedalling on earlier statements. Having initially been firm on receiving an apology from North Korea on the Yeonpyeong artillery attack and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, officials in the South have apparently scaled back:

“The North’s failure to admit and apologize for the attacks will inevitably have bad effects on the resumption of the six-party talks. But what is important is a change in the North’s attitude.”

This was quickly rebuffed by the Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, but it leaves the impression that the South Korean government is unsure of how to handle the North’s recent desire for talks. This came as, true to form, North Korea got upset about the possibility of having to apologise to get what it wanted:

North Korea on Wednesday complained the South should set no “unilateral preconditions” for dialogue or “attempt to dictate the order of various talks,” apparently irked by the South’s insistence that Pyongyang must apologize for last year’s provocations before talks can progress to other issues.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch