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South Korea Adheres to its New Firm Policy

The talks between the two Koreas broke down because South Korea refuses to reward North Korea for fruitless negotiations.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 2/9/2011, 9:46 PM / Last Update: 2/10/2011, 2:11 PM

True, it was the North Korean delegation that walked out of the low level military talks at the border village of Panmumjon on Wednesday, but it apparently did so after realizing that South Korea was going to stick to its guns.

After the military incidents involving the torpedoing of a South Korean warship last March, allegedly by a North Korean submarineand the shelling of a South Korean Island in November, the South Korean government has decided upon the tough approach. It will no longer stand for the hot and cold North Korean approach of provocation followed by negotiation, during which Pyongyang gains time to promote its nuclear program and receives foreign assistance for good behavior.

South Korea is insisting that North Korea apologize for the two military incidents and wants to get to high-level talks with a view to dismantling the North Korean nuclear program. If this happens, South Korea says it will be willing to resume the frozen assistance program as well as chip in $40 billion in aid and infrastructures for the North.

China and North Korea have been pushing for a resumption of talks between the two Koreas as a prelude to resuming the six power talks (North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia) on the nuclear crisis. South Korea, with the backing of the United States and Japan, is taking the position that the six power talks will not resume until substantial discussions have taken place between the two Koreas.

It may be viewed as hardball tactics, but South Korea is also banking on the food shortages in North Korea as a lever in gaining flexibility from the North. The endemic failures of the Stalinist regime in agriculture, coupled by a severe winter, are responsible for an aggravating situation. According to a report jointly released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) last year, North Korea needs to import 867,000 tons of crops to tide it over. 

North Korea took the unusual step of trying an end run around Seoul and approached the United States for assistance on this issue. North Korea was even willing to make the concession of allowing observers in who would verify that the food reached the population rather than being diverted for the use of the regime. The United States rebuffed this approach, claiming that the North would first have to seek clearance on this issue from South Korea and even if agreement was reached, food aid could not be expected to flow immediately.

A high-level South Korean official told the Korean daily Chosun Ilboand that as a result, the North Korean regime was being forced to turn a blind eye to the black market. The official rationing regime was capable of supplying the Army and the elites in Pyongyang, but this still left 20 million people to fend for themselves, and if the North cracked down as it has done on previous occasions it could expect major social unrest.