The two Koreas are talking again. Sort of. Fourteen months after talks between the two governments broke down, diplomats met in Beijing Tuesday to resume discussion about the fate of the 1 million families separated by partition after World War II and by the Korean War. The meeting was delayed one day after South Korea missed a deadline for a promised delivery of fertilizer. When the ship arrived in North Korea, the two sides met — and promptly adjourned, without specifying whether they would meet again.
Seoul’s frustrations are shared by the United States. Last week, Pyongyang was supposed to turn over the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War; at the last minute, North Korea canceled the handover. Today, a top U.S. official is scheduled to meet in Beijing with his North Korean counterpart to discuss that incident, as well as Pyongyang’s suspected efforts to build a nuclear arsenal. Also on the agenda is North Korea’s ballistic-missile program: Reportedly, the U.S. has photographs showing a test facility being readied for a launch later this summer.
If North Korea wants the world’s attention, it has it. The statement issued at the end of last weekend’s G8 summit expressed “deep concern” at the prospect of a North Korean missile test. Last week’s naval clash between the two Koreas triggered talks between the United Nations Command in Korea and Pyongyang. Pyongyang has threatened retaliation for the incident and warned that the situation could lead to war. As if to underline its message, a South Korean tourist was arrested on espionage charges last Sunday while visiting the North.
There is every reason to be concerned about events in North Korea. That does not mean that North Korea can set the diplomatic agenda. Pyongyang is doing all that it can to keep its interlocutors off balance. It has not succeeded; it must not. South Korea, the U.S. and Japan must continue to coordinate their policies and ensure that they, not Pyongyang, maintain the diplomatic initiative. It is a difficult and frustrating assignment, but it is not impossible. The trick is not to be confused by Pyongyang’s bluster and to focus on the long-term objectives: a dialogue between the two Koreas and a stable and peaceful Korean Peninsula.
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