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[Editorial] Talks as a formality?

The inter-Korean nuclear talks held in Indonesia on Friday were the first step toward the resumption of full-fledged, six-way talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. It had previously been agreed that Pyongyang would talk first with Seoul and later with Washington before the six-way talks, stalled since December 2008, would resume.

Given the affirmative assessment of the Friday talks by the South and North Korean nuclear representatives, the next logical step would be to hold Pyongyang-Washington talks. Emerging from the inter-Korean talks, Wi Sung-lac, the top nuclear envoy from the South, said they were productive. His North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, said he and Wi had frank and sincere talks.

The inter-Korean talks, held on the fringe of the ASEAN Regional Forum, had been demanded by South Korea, which did not want to be excluded from Pyongyang-Washington nuclear deals as it had been during the Pyongyang-Washington negotiations that produced the ill-fated 1994 Agreed Framework. In other words, Seoul wanted to have its voice clearly heard if it was to foot much of the bill when a final nuclear bargain was to be implemented.

As far as South Korea is concerned, it is no less important to keep North Korean hostility in check than to restart the denuclearization process. Pyongyang has frequently engaged in unprovoked acts of aggression in the past, with the latest cases being the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island off North Korea’s western coast.

South Korea has been demanding an apology for the sinking of the warship and the bombardment of the island as a precondition for massive food aid for starving North Koreans. This issue was presumably dealt with at the Wi-Ri talks, given that the talks lasted much longer than scheduled.

As a senior official from the South Korean Foreign Ministry observed, there was no reason to expect Pyongyang to make an abrupt turn either from its hostility toward the South or from its nuclear threat to the world. Negotiations have yet to start in earnest.

What the Wi-Ri talks did is that they provided momentum for resuming the long stalled nuclear talks and, possibly, inter-Korean talks. Nothing more and nothing less. Moreover, North Korea is one of the least trustworthy negotiating partners. It has no qualms about reneging on agreements if it is deemed to serve its interests.
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