SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama told North Korea to stick to its commitment to abandon atomic weapons, throwing his support behind ally South Korea ahead of talks to try to calm tension on the divided peninsula.
South Korea announced it would meet North Korean officials on February 11, the first meeting since a deadly artillery attack in the South last November.
The South wants to take a two-track approach to dialogue. One set of talks will focus on the sinking of the Cheonan warship last March and the shelling in November of Yeonpyeong island, attacks last year which killed a total of 50 people.
The North denies responsibility for the Cheonan attack and says the South provoked the Yeonpyeong shelling by test-firing into its waters. Seoul also wants separate bilateral talks about the North’s nuclear program.
Here is look at the possible outcomes:
PRELIMINARY MILITARY TALKS
The South says that first it wants preliminary working-level talks to set the agenda, and to get a feel for the North’s sincerity.
Seoul appears to now lump last year’s two attacks together as one incident. It says the South Korean public demands that the North must in some way acknowledge responsibility for them.
If the North simply absolves itself of responsibility for the attacks, the talks in the truce village of Panmunjom will stop dead in their tracks.
Under pressure from its ally China, and squeezed by international sanctions, the North is keen for dialogue to produce a result so that it can restart six-party talks which offer aid and diplomatic recognition.
Pyongyang is likely to repeat that it is sincere, but that may not be enough to satisfy Seoul. Going on past such discussions, these talks could drag out over a number of rounds.
HIGH-LEVEL MILITARY TALKS
The level of these talks is unclear, but the North has suggested that they could involve the countries’ defense ministers. They could start as early as March.
The South has been vague on what precisely it wants from the North with regards to the two attacks, saying at various times it wants acknowledgement, an expression of regret and an apology.
Six decades and dozens of attacks have yet to result in a North Korean apology, although in 1976 former leader Kim Il-sung did express regret for the axe killings of two U.S. soldiers near the border that pushed the peninsula to the brink of war.
It’s unlikely the North will change its stance on the Cheonan attack. But it could say it regretted civilians were killed in the Yeonpyeong attack. Seoul is increasingly coming under pressure to create an environment for multilateral talks, and it may have to accept this will do.
BILATERAL NUCLEAR TALKS
Alongside the military talks, the South demands political talks with Pyongyang about its nuclear program and the feasibility of restarting six-party talks. It will formally request such talks this week.
Pyongyang has made no mention of bilateral nuclear talks.
The North walked out of six-party talks in 2009 declaring the aid-for-disarmament process dead, but last year said it wanted back in.
Seoul says it wants to get a sense if Pyongyang is genuine about denuclearization pledges made in 2005, and that it will then report back to the other delegates from the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
South Korea will not be a position to negotiate with Pyongyang at this level.
Analysts say that the North’s uranium enrichment program has created a new sense of urgency for multilateral nuclear talks amid concerns about proliferation.
Experts have also raised questions about Washington’s “strategic patience” policy, saying it has failed to prevent the North’s attacks and nuclear advances. They say the window of opportunity may not exist for long and dialogue is needed to at least stem further nuclear progress and prevent more attacks.
The chances of a resumption of six-party talks appears to be rising. But they are unlikely to happen for months, if they happen at all.
Editing by Ron Popeski
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