News / Asia

Koreas Move Toward Military Talks to Defuse Tensions

South Korea has accepted North Korea’s offer for military talks because Pyongyang appears willing to discuss provocative acts that last year brought the Korean peninsula to its highest level of tension in decades.

Although South Korean officials responded positively to North Korea’s offer of military talks, they made clear on Friday that ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs must remain the top priority for dialogue.

Chun Hae-sun, the South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman, Chun says Pyongyang, in its letter asking for resumption of military talks, did not mention the nuclear issue so Seoul will propose holding high-level talks on the North’s nuclear program.

At the Defense Ministry in Seoul, officials say next week they will propose a date for preparatory discussions to pave the way for high-level military talks.

North Korea’s state-run broadcasting service on Friday said the armed forces minister proposed holding military talks within the first 10 days of February. His letter, according to the broadcast, confirms the talks will include “expressing views” on the sinking of a South Korean ship and the shelling of a South Korean island last year.

North Korea denies any responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, last March. It justified the shelling of Yeonpyeong island last November as a response to what it considered provocative South Korean military drills in disputed waters.

Professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul says there is a 50-50 chance” of the high-level talks occurring.

Yang says if both sides are able to reach an agreement during working-level talks, then it is possible for such a meeting to occur late next month. But, he cautions, if the preliminary discussions fail, a higher-level meeting could be postponed indefinitely.

If military talks do resume, they will be the first cross-border meeting since the attack on Yeonpyeong. Four South Koreans died in the shelling.

The last round of military talks was held on September 30, 2010. But the South did not succeed in gaining any acknowledgement from the North that it sank the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

Professor Yang says this week’s China-U.S. summit has helped prod the two Koreas from a mode of confrontation to conversation.

Yang explains there is now an opportunity for the two Koreas to take control of their own situation on the peninsula. If not, he says, South Korea risks being a bystander in possible two-way talks between Pyongyang and Washington or if the six-party nuclear dialogue resumes in the future.

U.S. officials welcomed the possibility of talks. State Department spokesman Mark Toner says it is a positive sign. But, he cautions it is premature to expect that six-nation talks about North Korea’s nuclear activities will resume soon.

"We still believe that North Korea has a ways to go before we can engage in meaningful six-party talks. As we've said all along, we just don't want to talk for talk's sake," he said.

Besides the two Koreas, the other parties to those talks are China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

North Korea in November revealed a uranium enrichment program, which it says is for peaceful energy production. But some scientists say it gives the country a second route to making nuclear weapons, in addition to its older plutonium program.

North and South Korea have technically been in a state of war for decades. A 1953 truce halted combat in their civil war, but has never been replaced by a peace treaty.

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