Three days of high-level talks between North and South Korea yielded little that could be called progress toward resolving the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. That is not surprising. The North has maintained all along that the nuclear issue is a question to be settled between itself and the United States. Indeed, Pyongyang considers Seoul a mere extension of the U.S. government, except when it needs handouts. The North’s refusal to deal with South Korea as an equal ensures that the inter-Korean dialogue will remain fitful and frustrating.

There were hopes of a breakthrough in the North Korean impasse after last week’s meeting between South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong Young and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Il, the first high-level contact between the two governments in 10 months. At that meeting, Mr. Kim said his country was ready to return to the six-party talks — which have not convened for a year — if the U.S. would recognize and respect North Korea. Mr. Kim also reportedly offered to give up his missile programs if Washington would normalize relations between the two countries. South Korea’s offer of a massive “Marshall Aid”-type assistance package to the North was another inducement to return to negotiations.

Yet the talks in Seoul were more frustrating than fruitful. In the 12-point statement released at the end of the visit, the two Koreas merely agreed to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully through dialogue, but no date was set for the next round of negotiations. Instead, they pledged “substantial actions” when there is the “right atmosphere” for success.

What that means is unclear. The U.S. has said it honors North Korean sovereignty and has no intention of attacking or invading the North. Mr. Kim has been afforded the respect — he was called “Mr.” Kim by U.S. President George W. Bush in recent comments — that he demanded, and all the other parties have said they are ready to resume talks immediately. The U.S. has even promised 50,000 tons of food aid.

For North Korea, though, talking on other topics is apparently easier. The two Koreas agreed to hold military talks at the general staff level on ways to reduce military tension on the peninsula (no date was set). They agreed to resume reunions of separated families in August and to hold Red Cross talks on humanitarian issues. They agreed to explore greater economic cooperation next month and to hold inter-Korean ministerial talks in September and again in December.

The North will also send a government delegation to the South for the Aug. 15 Liberation Day celebration, which marks Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. The South agreed to provide rice to the North, although the exact amount has not been specified. The North reportedly asked for 400,000 tons of aid, the amount provided by Seoul last year, but details will depend on the economic talks to be held next month. Requests for fertilizer are also outstanding.

It is hard to point to progress in inter-Korean relations as long as the nuclear shadow looms over the peninsula. The government of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has long maintained that North Korea must commit to the denuclearization of the peninsula before it will really help Pyongyang. The North Korean government has repeatedly said it shares that goal. Last week Mr. Kim even said that ridding the peninsula of nuclear arms was the dying instruction of his father, Kim Il Sung. Yet the talks remain stalled, and North Korea declared on Feb. 10 that it is a nuclear-weapons state. The aid and economic exchanges continue.

It is unrealistic to expect any breakthrough on South Korean soil. North Korea knows that Seoul will not push too hard and that it will be rewarded merely for showing up. For the South Korean government, process is as important as results. As a result, Pyongyang will hold out for a much bigger payoff before returning to negotiations over its nuclear weapons.

Moreover, North Korea will not make a concession for which the South can take credit. Pyongyang’s longstanding ambition is to marginalize Seoul, to deal only with the U.S. in security matters. This would support the North’s claim that the South Korean government is not really sovereign, that important decisions are made in Washington and that it — not Seoul — speaks for all Koreans.

After all, the Korean Peninsula is still divided and both governments claim there is only one Korea — and hence only one real Korean government. This refusal to accept Seoul as a real partner means that inter-Korean negotiations will remain an empty shell, a stick that Pyongyang will use to stir up trouble with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Thus far, the tactic seems to be working.

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