Terrorism, railroads, and broken families are all on the agenda in Seoul, as crucial reconciliation talks between North and South Korea resume Saturday after a six-month break. The government in Seoul is under political pressure to win concessions and get the other side to keep past promises, but experts say Pyongyang has little to bargain with.
South Korea says its brand new Unification Minister Hong Soon-young will lead the delegation in Seoul, where the South wants to get North Korea to keep promises made in earlier talks to rebuild road and rail links severed since the Korean War in the early 1950s. His predecessor was forced to resign under criticism from opposition parties which say President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" policy of engaging the North is costing too much and getting nothing in return but broken promises.
Korea-born Professor Suchan Chae, who teaches about his homeland's politics at Rice University in Texas, says North Koreans agreed to resume talks with the South because they were afraid that President Kim Dae-jung's fading popularity might kill his Sunshine policy, including badly needed aid programs that feed many people in North Korea. "North Korea probably sensed that they have to do something at this point to prevent the public from going against North Korea," he said.
But it is the North's unfulfilled promises that helped spark the political crisis in the South. One of those promises was to allow more reunions of families separated by the war. Thousands of people have been allowed to see long-lost relatives, but 96,000 elderly South Koreans are still waiting.
The United States is South Korea's staunchest ally, and some South Korean media are critical of Seoul for holding the talks so soon after Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
In an apparent bid to blunt that criticism, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung is asking negotiators to work out a joint statement condemning terrorism. Both countries have already separately denounced the attacks.
Professor In-Young Chun, of Seoul National University, says South Korean officials are concerned the terrorism crisis will distract Washington at a time when Seoul could use support from a friend. "The situation is so serious that the United States does not have much room to consider North Korean affairs and try to improve relations at this moment," he said. "It is going to take time until the United States solves the other task [of dealing with recent serious terrorist attacks].
Other commentators say the attacks in New York and Washington might prompt the United States to take a tougher line against North Korea. Pyongyang broke off the talks six months ago, complaining that the Bush administration was signaling a tougher line against North Korea.
It is a little ironic for North Korea to denounce terrorism. Pyongyang is widely believed to have blown up a group of South Korean cabinet minsters visting Burma in 1983, and a civilian airliner in 1987. Washington has long accused North Korea of sponsoring terrorism.
While the expected agenda covers terrorism and many other topics, Hudson Institute scholar Robert Dujarick says the talks are not likely to produce major results.
"The bottom line is that North Korea has very little to give," he said. "They can not make concessions because they are such a fragile country that any concession of any significance would put in jeopardy the stability of the North Korean regime, and that is something they can not accept."
But Professor Chun says North Korea must make the most of this opportunity because next year, South Korean politics will be caught up in presidential elections that will complicate every political decision facing South Korea's President, something likely to make compromise even more difficult than usual.