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S. Korea Cool to N. Korea Charm Offensive

In this undated photo released by (north) Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service in Tokyo, Dec. 22, 2010, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center right, visits the Huichon Ryonha General Machinery Plant in Huichon, North Korea.
AP Photo
SEOUL, South Korea — A recent North Korean charm offensive is a welcome thaw after the threats traded following the North's deadly shelling of a South Korean island six weeks ago. But while tensions may be easing, don't expect a diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean peninsula anytime soon.

The North's sudden willingness to talk fits a well-established and — for diplomats engaged in the often tortuous talks in the past — a tiresome pattern.

North Korea, the complaint goes, creates a crisis and, when panic and fear envelope Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, then offers the possibility of negotiations to win badly needed food, fuel and other aid.

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The problem this time is that neither South Korea nor the United States seems willing to give Pyongyang what it wants: money. That means 2011 could be a rocky year.

"More shooting, more daring raids, more carefully planned sinking of warships, more nuclear tests, more missile launches and a lot of bellicose rhetoric," predicts Andrei Lankov, a scholar on the North at Seoul's Kookmin University.

The latest crisis started Nov. 23 with a North Korean artillery attack on the South's Yeonpyeong Island near their disputed western sea border. The shelling killed two civilians and two marines, and an escalating war of words and threats ensued.

The New Year, however, has seen a change in tone. The North this week called for unconditional and early talks with South Korea. On Thursday, the North's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, called for "visits, contacts and cooperation, not only between authorities, but between people from all walks of life in the North, South and abroad."

This from a country that threatened recently to launch a "sacred" nuclear war against the South.

Seoul has dismissed the offer and urged the North to show it has changed through actions, not words. The North's approach, however, has opened up space for negotiations.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, facing stinging criticism for what was seen as a slow, weak response to the initial attack, pushed tensions to the brink late last month when his military staged live-fire artillery drills, backed up with fighter jets in the skies, from Yeonpyeong Island.

Essentially, Lee dared the North to respond to the new drills, promising he would hit back harder. The North did nothing.

North Korea's military recently lifted a special alert for its bases near the western sea border, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified government official.

The South Korea-U.S. combined forces command lowered its surveillance alert against North Korea on Tuesday, Yonhap said.

The Defense Ministry said it could not confirm the report, citing the issue's sensitivity.

Still, the future of negotiations meant to rid the North of its nuclear programs is murky. U.S. officials worry the North will eventually develop the ability to attack its enemies with nuclear missiles.

The so-called six-nation talks, which have stumbled along since 2003, were last held in December 2008. Since then, the North has conducted a second nuclear test, launched missiles and allegedly sunk a South Korean warship in March of last year, killing 46.

Washington and Seoul have been vague about what they want from the North to restart talks. The U.S. has indicated an openness to a resumption but is urging the North to demonstrate a "seriousness of purpose."

President Barack Obama's envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, met this week with officials in Seoul and Beijing. He likely discussed with China — the North's main ally and host of the stalled six-nation talks — what it would take to get the negotiations going again.

In New York, the Koreas topped the agenda of a meeting Thursday between Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said both stressed "the need for peace and stability in the region as well as for the resumption of the six-party talks." He said Ban expressed "strong appreciation of China's active efforts" to revive the talks.

In Washington, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Thursday after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that North and South Korea should first reopen dialogue, and if the North "takes concrete actions," the six-nation talks — which involve the two Koreas, Japan, the United States, China and Russia — could resume.

North Korea has built a nuclear program despite sanctions and widespread condemnation and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half-dozen atomic bombs. It's not thought to have mastered mounting a nuclear device on a long-range missile.

It also shocked some observers in November by unveiling a uranium enrichment facility, which could give it a second way to make atomic bombs.

The North says it has no conditions for talks, but it has definite goals: a peace treaty ending the Korean War, which was settled by an armistice, leaving the peninsula technically in a state of war; direct talks with the United States and the prestige of being called a nuclear weapons power.

Even if the Koreas do talk, there's little sign Pyongyang will be getting what it wants.