News / Asia

South Korea Acknowledges Secret Talks with North

South Korea's government on Thursday admitted it held secret discussions with North Korea last month. South Korea's president is facing criticism across the domestic political spectrum for the talks, which were revealed by Pyongyang.

The administration of President Lee Myung-bak finds itself on the defensive amid criticism at home of its secret contacts with North Korea.

The two Korea's have no diplomatic relations and Lee, in public, has taken a hard-line approach towards Pyongyang.

North Korea, on Wednesday, claimed three South Korean officials “begged” for a summit between leaders of the two countries and offered bribes at secret meetings in Beijing last month.

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek on Thursday confirmed to lawmakers the clandestine encounter did occur.

Hyun says there was no attempt by South Korea to arrange a leaders’ summit. Rather the secret talks were intended to press North Korea to apologize for last year’s military provocations, which Seoul insists is a prelude to improving the chilly relationship.

Marcus Noland is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics and the East West Center in the United States. He says he supports President Lee’s attempted dialogue.

"Really the story is not that the South Koreans were talking to the North Koreas - just like the Chinese and Americans are - but rather that the North Koreans chose to publically embarrass him just like they had done to a previous delegation of international statesmen that tried to reach out and open up some doors," he said.

Noland speculates that something is amiss in Pyongyang for it to be shutting down such contact at this time.

"I think it's likely that their internal politics are now going in a very hard-line militaristic direction," he said.

The revelation by Pyongyang of the secret talks followed pronouncements from North Korea that it was breaking all contacts with Seoul.

Some western intelligence analysts say this signals a new, dangerous phase in inter-Korean relations. The analysts say the recent statements from the North could mean it is willing to take some sort of military action in response to any perceived provocations by the South.

Noland, an economist who closely follows North Korea, agrees with that scenario.

"I think that the likelihood of provocation over the next year is significantly high," he said. "The North Koreans, they're in a difficult situation. Their economy is not doing well. I think it's most likely that they're asking for food aid now because they are going to do a provocation of some sort and they anticipate things tightening up."

A team from the U.S. Agency for International Development has been in North Korea assessing whether Washington should resume food aid to the impoverished country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in May, visited China, his country’s closest significant ally, for the third time in 13 months. Analysts say there are signs the trip did not go as well as he hoped, with apparent failure to agree on the course for resumed international negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Relations between the two Korea's have been in a chill for more than a year since the sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea. Seoul blamed the explosion aboard the Cheonan on a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang has repeatedly denied any involvement. Seoul has insisted that relations can not improve until North Korea apologizes for the attack.

Last November, North Korea shelled a South Korean frontier island, killing four people. Pyongyang said it was responding to provocative South Korean military exercises near disputed waters.

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