South Korea’s president is signaling a change in his position on talks with North Korea.
Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday expressed a desire for dialogue with Pyongyang, saying Seoul’s tough military posture alone will not ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Mr. Lee also said international negotiations to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs need to revive in the new year.
The president says it is critical next year, through the six-party talks, to achieve progress on persuading Pyongyang to end its nuclear ambitions ahead of its goal of becoming a “great, powerful and prosperous” nation in 2012.
Since North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month, Mr. Lee’s public comments have focused on deterring further provocation through military readiness and national unity. The military here conducted a series of war games intended to demonstrate its resolve.
Choi Jin-wook is the director of the Center for South-North Korean Cooperation Studies at the Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“This is the time for us to talk about the nuclear issue at [the] six-party talks format. So I think this is based on a close cooperation with Washington and Seoul, including Japan,” he said.
China pushed for an emergency resumption of the stalled talks after the shelling of Yeonpyeong island. But Seoul, Tokyo and Washington expressed strong reservations, saying Pyongyang should not be rewarded for belligerency.
The discussions, which also include Russia, are aimed at getting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions.
The talks began in 2003 and broke down in 2008. Since then North Korea has conducted missile and nuclear tests. Earlier this year North Korea was blamed for a torpedo attack on a South Korean navy vessel in the Yellow Sea. Pyongyang denies involvement.
Tensions further escalated with the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, which killed four South Koreans. Pyongyang said it was provoked by a South Korean live-firing exercise into the sea close to a maritime border that the North does not recognize.
South Korean, Japanese and U.S. officials have said that North Korea needs to take concrete action on giving up its nuclear programs before talks could resume.
Many regional analysts say impoverished North Korea is entering a critical phase ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of its first leader, Kim Il Sung. His son, Kim Jong Il, rules now, and his grandson is expected to be the third in the family to rule.
The grandson, Kim Jong Un, has been named a general, despite having no military experience. Some North Korea experts say he may try to burnish his reputation at home with attacks against the South, as his father did three decades ago.