Less than three months after North Korea's shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, North and South Korea opened preliminary, colonel-level talks yesterday to set an agenda and date for ministerial-level defense talks. However, the talks adjourned without reaching an agreement, raising questions about prospects for renewed diplomacy to address North Korea's nuclear program. South Korea accepted inter-Korean Red Cross talks on humanitarian issues, but even those talks may be constrained by North Korea's failure to take responsibility for past provocations against the South.
Both Koreas have reason to reinitiate inter-Korean dialogue, but the two sides appear to be talking past each other. North Korea has shifted from a policy of provocation to diplomatic charm offensive for the second time in two years because it needs to relieve food shortfalls and expand economic assistance from South Korea so as not to rely exclusively on China for its economic needs. South Korea faces international pressure to reengage in talks following the Hu-Obama joint call for renewed dialogue last month in Washington. It also faces domestic pressures from a South Korean public, which expects the administration of President Lee Myung-bak to retaliate strongly against North Korean provocations but is also concerned about a lack of progress in inter-Korean relations and is beginning to think about next year's South Korean parliamentary and presidential elections.
Both sides seek differing objectives and are unlikely to respond to the other side's needs following North Korea's March 26 sinking of the Cheonan and its November 23 shelling of South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two soldiers and two civilians. As a prerequisite for setting the date for a ministerial-level meeting, South Korea demands a North Korean apology for the sinking of the Cheonan (for which North Korea continues to deny responsibility), and an admission of responsibility and regret for the Yeonpyeong artillery shelling, along with pledges not to repeat such provocations. But North Korea's apology would be unprecedented and would send a signal of weakness as a prelude to more consequential negotiations. On the other hand, North Korea's desires for financial assistance from South Korea and for renewed dialogue channels with the United States and through Six Party Talks cannot be realized without concrete North Korean commitments to return to denuclearization talks and an explanation for the attacks that, as South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan has stated, is "understandable to [the South Korean] people."
By accepting North Korea's full-court press to reopen dialogue, South Korea has successfully marshaled international leverage supporting its demands for an apology as the only diplomatic option through which North Korea can escape diplomatic isolation and meet its material needs. But in managing its approach to inter-Korean dialogue, the Lee administration must balance domestic public opinion against international desires for renewed channels of dialogue with North Korea. This means the South needs a meaningful concession to show it has held North Korea accountable despite North Korea's unwillingness to admit mistakes, especially if those mistakes have negative ramifications for North Korea's ongoing political succession process. Also, South Korea's central role in managing North Korea is at its peak, because the South will have less influence on North Korea's channels and choices if a U.S.-DPRK dialogue resumes. International reengagement with the North may heighten South Korean perceptions that it is being marginalized on issues critical to its national security if North Korea engages on weighty issues such as denuclearization through Six Party Talks.
Despite a lack of enthusiasm for dialogue in the absence of North Korean concessions, South Korea must avoid usurping North Korea's role as the primary obstacle to renewed dialogue and tension reduction on Korean peninsula issues. The U.S.-China joint call for dialogue has succeeded in influencing the two Koreas to come back to the table, but the task of establishing a stable inter-Korean relationship will require a deft touch from both China and the United States.