Could Korean Conflict Finally Be Cooling?

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After two turbulent and violent years on the Korean peninsula, culminating in North Korea's sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March and its shelling of Southern island Yeonpyeong in November, the North finally appears as if it may be backing down. Seven months after shutting it down, the North resumed using the direct hotline linking the governments of the two countries. The North has also called for resuming some small-scale but symbolic North-South military and diplomat ties. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, meeting today with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, pushed for both bilateral North-South talks and for the six-party talks that would also involve the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan. South Korean officials are resisting Gates's call for bilateral talks, and reading the North is near-impossible as always, but could we be seeing some signs of calming?

  • 'Hopeful Signs' But 'Impossible to Tell'  The New York Times editorial board says the U.S. will have to get China's support to be sure. "After two years of threats and attacks, North Korea may be pulling back from the brink. Or not," they write. "When President Obama and President Hu Jintao of China meet next week in Washington, this must be one of the top items on their agenda. Mr. Obama will have to forcefully argue the case that an erratic neighbor armed with nuclear weapons is anything but a recipe for the stability Beijing so prizes, or for an American military drawdown in the region."
  • North Korea's 'Warming' Looks 'Genuine,'  John McReary of AFCEA Nightwatch writes. He chronicles the trend. "North Korea continues to press South Korea to reactivate the military hotline at Panmunjom; wants the South to resume tours to the Mount Kumgang resort on the east coast, and wants to restore the North-South liaison office at the Kaesong joint industrial zone. All of these were announced within the past week."
  • Gates Pushing for Reconciliation  Voice of America's Steve Herman writes that "Gates is the latest figure on the international stage to signal the possibility of peacefully re-engaging North Korea. During a meeting Friday here with his South Korean counterpart, Gates said any return to multi-national talks with Pyongyang could only come after the two Koreas meet." However, "South Korea, so far, has rebuffed the request, saying Pyongyang must first show it is sincere about ending provocations and about making progress on giving up its nuclear arms.
A senior South Korean government official said that no bilateral talks were possible until the North agreed to Seoul’s preconditions about the agenda, which would include a discussion of the sinking of a South Korean warship last March, the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November and North Korean nuclear activities. He spoke privately because of the sensitivity of the issue during Mr. Gates’s visit. The official, who has close knowledge of the so-called six-party talks aimed at dismantling the North Korean nuclear programs, suggested that the recent revelation of a new uranium enrichment facility in the North was 'a very, very serious challenge and a real provocation.'
  • Pyongyang Could Strike Again  The Council on Foreign Relations' Paul Stares warns at against getting "sanguine" about the situation as "recent events raise some troubling questions about the volatility of the situation in Korea today." He explains, "If the leadership in Pyongyang is primarily or even secondarily motivated by the desire to embarrass the leadership in Seoul and/or bolster the legitimacy of the heir apparent--Kim Jong Il’s young and inexperienced third son, Kim Jong Un--through further provocations, then additional escalatory pressures could come into play."

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