South Korea is easing its previous stance that it will not resume any kind of dialogue with North Korea until Pyongyang apologizes for last year’s deadly attacks, Seoul officials said Sunday.
The two Koreas, still technically at war, have had their frostiest ties in decades since the North conducted two naval attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.
Since the last attack in November, Seoul has suspended aid and dialogue, firm not to do the North any favors until it admits responsibility for the deaths of dozens of sailors and four civilians. While this attitude has been generally well received by the public, it has been a major hurdle to restarting the multinational talks aimed at denuclearizing Pyongyang.
Receiving an apology “is not the key condition in resuming the denuclearization talks,” a senior Seoul official said. “What is the most important is for North Korea to show an earnest attitude toward disarming.”
The six-nation talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, have been suspended since the end of 2008 after Pyongyang walked from the negotiation table, claiming other dialogue partners had failed to keep promises.
Backed by its traditional ally China, the North has been making increasing efforts to rejoin the talks, apparently desperate to secure food assistance to feed its people.
While Pyongyang’s apology will “certainly help moving forward” the multinational negotiations, the issue was not the main barrier to resuming dialogue, the official added, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Another South Korean official echoed his remarks saying an apology and inter-Korean nuclear talks were “two very separate issues.”
On Beijing’s suggestion, South Korea had been positively reviewing the strategy to first hold nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang to pave the way for larger-scale peace talks involving other regional powers.
North Korea, however, discarded its reconciliatory gesture toward the South and has been upping hostile rhetoric since earlier this month.
South Korea fears that it may lose the initiative in discussions related to the peninsula if Pyongyang tries to hold one-on-one talks with Washington without engaging Seoul.
In an apparent effort to soothe concerns among Seoul officials, Washington’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell had said his government strongly supported South Korea’s approach on the issue.
“We all agree that there has to be improvement between the North and the South,” Campbell told reports after meeting South Korean officials including Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.
Minister Kim will be flying to Washington next week to discuss the joint strategy on North Korea with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
By Shin Hae-in (firstname.lastname@example.org