Korea’s Lee says talks the answer to nuclear crisis

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on Wednesday the nuclear crisis on the peninsula must be tackled by negotiation, but chances of international talks are slim because of a gulf between the parties involved, and a lack of pressure on an emboldened North Korea.

Lee, who has vowed a tough stance against any further attack by the North, also called for fresh dialogue between the rival Koreas, saying a hardline military policy alone by Seoul will not ease the tension.

Six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear work, which the North walked out of two years ago, were the only available forum to end the North’s nuclear programme in return for economic aid and diplomatic recognition, Lee said at a policy briefing by the Foreign Ministry.

“I think removal of the North Korea nuclear programmes should be achieved through six-party talks next year,” he said.

Lee’s aim is seen as unreachable by analysts who say the North has no reason to make big concessions right now.

There may be smaller meetings between two or three countries involved in the region, but “denuclearisation” — the original purpose of talks involving the South, China, the United States, Russia and Japan — is off the table for Pyongyang.

“There could be some sort of alternative process in 2011 but it is hard to say. There is a lot of pessimism about North Korea right now,” said Scott Snyder, an expert on US-Korea relations at the Asia Foundation.

A meeting between North and South Korea, backed by the United States, could be an option to kick off a diplomatic process although chances of success were low, he said.

“China does have a point when they say that there is no stable crisis-management mechanism in place for diplomacy outside the six-party structure,” Snyder said.

Like the United States, South Korea has signalled that it is loath to restart the diplomatic process — also involving China, Japan, and Russia — unless its reclusive neighbour shows steps towards completely dismantling its nuclear programme.

Washington will not be keen for involvement in talks aimed at sending in international nuclear inspectors as it wants the removal, not the monitoring, of all North Korea’s atomic work. It also wants China, the North’s main ally and economic backer, to do more to rein in Pyongyang, but China has called for a restart of the six-party talks without preconditions.

Domestic pressures
Uranium enrichment work revealed last month could give North Korea, which had nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, a second route to an atomic bomb outside of its plutonium programme.

Washington is expected to voice such concerns when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits the United States on January 19.

North Korea attacked the southern island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, killing four people. The United States and South Korea also blamed it for sinking a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors.

The North’s recent hostile acts are a way of pushing countries back into talks at which it could win aid, said Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University in Seoul.

“They are willing to talk about restrictions of their nuclear programme, and they might be willing to accept certain restrictions if the rewards are sufficiently high,” he said.

Others say the aggression is motivated by issues related to succession of leadership.

“I see things being internally driven, not from vulnerability but in terms of making Kim Jong-un earn his stars, of smoothing the succession,” said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He said this preparation appeared essential ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il-Sung, the young heir’s grandfather.

North Korea has said it wants to build a “great and prosperous nation” by then and the nuclear programme would be a key element of that vision.

“This is part of their identity, one of their few accomplishments in recent years. They attach far too much value to the programme to bargain it away right now,” Beck said.

Lee said South Korea must not let down its military guard against the North.

“Ensuring peace on the Korea peninsula is an important task going forward but this can’t be done with diplomacy only. I think we need strong defence capabilities and unity among the people should be achieved as prerequisites.”

Lee has come under pressure domestically for what was seen as a weak response to the Yeonpyeong attack.

Lee last week vowed “a merciless counterattack” against any fresh North Korean assaults as the South Korean army held rare large-scale military drills near the border in a demonstration of military might. – Reuters

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