October 23, 2009 / 4:26 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A-Why is reclusive North Korea reaching out?

(For full coverage of North Korea, click [ID:nNORKOR])

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL, Oct 23 (Reuters) - North Korea has launched a diplomatic offensive this month that includes a summit with China, plans to send an envoy to the United States and, according to a report, holding secret talks with the South for a summit. [ID:nSEO277869]

Here are some questions and answer about the North’s moves:

WHAT IS BEHIND THE NORTH’S MOVES?

North Korea appears to be looking for help with its broken economy that was dealt blows by fresh U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear test in May, a loss of aid from the South caused by political rancour, and floods that may lead to a smaller harvest this year.

North Korea also has a record of taking a tough stance when new governments come to power in the United States and South Korea and later softening its position. The North may be repeating this pattern with U.S. President Barack Obama, who took office about 10 months ago, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took power in February 2008.

IS NORTH KOREA READY FOR TALKS ON NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT?

To a certain degree. North Korea is not about to give away its nuclear arms programme, which is its biggest negotiating card and the crowning achievement of leader Kim Jong-il’s "military first" rule. If it wants more aid, it will have to make concessions. This could lead to the North agreeing to more steps to take apart its ageing plutonium-producing nuclear plant that was being disabled under a deal with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

HOW MUCH CAN NORTH KOREA GAIN?

The North could see the resumption of aid and food handouts from the South that were once equal to about 5 percent of its annual economy. Lee ended the unconditional handouts when he took office. Since the North’s GDP is so small — an estimated $17 billion a year — even a partial recovery of the assistance would be significant.

The United States, which has pressed for tough enforcement of the U.N. sanctions, is not about to provide direct aid to the North but progress in six-way nuclear dealings could lead to a resumption in rewards being sent to the North for disarmament.

Also, any progress the North makes to ease tension would likely please China, the North’s biggest benefactor and the closest thing it could claim as a major ally. China, with its long border with the North and concern about destabilising its neighbour, is the key player in enforcing U.N. sanctions.

WHAT IS THE RISK OF A SUMMIT FOR PRESIDENT LEE?

Lee has said he would only agree to a summit if it was tied to meaningful steps by Pyongyang to reduce the security threat it poses to the region. If there is progress in the nuclear dealings, a summit could be seen as a victory for Lee because it will serve as a validation of his policy stance.

Even if there is no significant progress on the nuclear front ahead of a summit, the South Korean public has shown great support for its two leaders who went to the North to meet Kim because those meetings decreased tension on the heavily armed peninsula and stirred emotions of a fraternal bond for Koreans on the other side of the border.

The risks come from being seen as caving in or giving away too much in order to hold a summit. (Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)





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