An opportunity to ease tensions in the Korean peninsula has been thrown away with South Korea rejecting North Korea’s offer of unconditional talks. Pyongyang has said that it is willing to meet “anyone, anytime and anywhere” but Seoul has dismissed the offer as a propaganda gimmick. Tensions in the peninsula, rarely low, have touched a new high in recent months following a North Korean artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island in November which left four people dead. Pyongyang resorted to shelling in response to South Korean military exercises close to the disputed inter-Korean western maritime border. In March last year, a South Korean warship sank killing 46 sailors. Seoul accused North Korea of torpedoing the ship, suspended trade ties and referred the matter to the United Nations. In October, the two countries exchanged fire across their land border. Relations between the two have plunged since. Of course, Pyongyang’s confrontationist moves are untenable but it is not the only actor in the East Asia drama that is provocative. Amidst the skyrocketing tension in the region, South Korea and the US have been carrying out large-scale military exercises near the disputed maritime border, despite objections from North Korea as well as China.
South Korea’s intransigent attitude is unhelpful. Perhaps the North Korean talks offer is aimed at propaganda. Still, what does Seoul have to lose by engaging in talks? Apparently, it does not want to be seen rewarding the North for its provocative behaviour. But does it have any better ideas to defuse the crisis? Seoul says it wants an apology from Pyongyang. Isn’t that for domestic propaganda reasons? South Korea has nothing to lose by accepting the talks offer and following it up with a proposal of dates and an agenda for a dialogue. Talks might lead to a dead-end but the consequences of not talking are worse. It could mean more tension, more muscle-flexing on both sides. Perhaps even war.
It is time that the long-stalled Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme were revived. The recent revelation that North Korea has a modern uranium enrichment facility with at least 1,000 centrifuges is of serious concern. Waiting for the tension to ease before start of the nuclear talks is not the right strategy. The nuclear issue is far more complicated and cannot be put on hold till relations between North and South Korea improve.