Koreas show signs of renewed engagement, though military, nuclear tensions cast shadow

By Sangwon Yoon, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dialogue, tensions coexist in inter-Korean ties

SEOUL, South Korea — There are signs of improving relations between North and South Korea, including plans for reunions of families divided by the Korean War and even talk of reviving a joint tourism venture, though prospects for a reduction in military and nuclear tensions remain uncertain.

Some experts believe North Korea is seeking reconciliation with the South after months of deteriorating ties, while others say its proposals are only a facade while it presses ahead with its nuclear program and implements political changes at home.

Kim Tae-hyo, the South Korean president’s deputy national security adviser, warned in comments this week that the threat posed by the North’s nuclear program has reached an “extremely dangerous level.”

According to the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, satellite images from Sept. 29 show new construction in the area around North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

And last week, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Pak Kil Yon warned in a speech at the United Nations that his government would strengthen its nuclear capability in response to what he described as hostile moves by the United States.

Tensions between North and South Korea rose sharply in March after the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died. Seoul and Washington blamed North Korea, which denies it was involved.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Tuesday that the military is preparing to immediately resume full-scale propaganda activities against North Korea in the event of “any new provocations” by the country. The North, meanwhile, said last week it might fire artillery at sites in the South from where leaflets criticizing the country are launched by civilian activists using balloons across the heavily fortified border.

Last week, however, the two Koreas agreed to hold their first reunions in a year for divided families later this month, while South Korea is considering a proposal by North Korea to hold talks aimed at restarting a stalled joint tourism venture in the North.

The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, said on a visit to Seoul on Thursday that he noted “some signs of dialogue, engagement between North and South Korea, and we encourage that process to continue.”

But he said North Korea must also live up its promises in international disarmament talks to abandon its nuclear programs.

“I think we’re also looking for a clear and demonstrable commitment on the part of the North Koreans to fulfill their commitments,” he said.

Analysts disagree on whether that is likely, and what impact political changes in North Korea will have.

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, was promoted to top military and ruling party posts, signaling he is in line to succeed his ailing father.

“The two Koreas are currently searching for ways to relieve military tensions on the Korean peninsula,” said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korea at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “Pyongyang hasn’t openly apologized for the sinking of the Cheonan but they have brought up holding reunions and discussing the possibility of resuming the joint tour venture. These are reconciliatory measures.”

But Baek Seung-joo of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul said North Korea’s government has repeatedly created a mood of apparent reconciliation to gain concessions from other nations, while pushing ahead with its nuclear program and fostering a sense of external threat to unify its people behind it.

“Pyongyang cannot help but deceive the world by acting as if it will give up its nuclear weapons when it won’t,” Baek said. “The North Korean system will collapse unless tensions are kept high to maintain internal solidarity.”

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