North Korea, South Korea: Talking peace, talking tough
SEOUL - South and North Korea, which have maintained a love-hate relationship ever since their military confrontation over 57 years ago, are two neighbouring countries leading contrasting lifestyles: one affluent and the other perpetually poverty-stricken.
The peace between the two Koreas has remained fragile despite an armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 conflict in the troubled peninsula.
South Korea, one of the world's most wired countries, is economically and technologically advanced. At UN aid agency meetings, it has switched places at the negotiating table, graduating from a recipient country to a donor.
The South is also the second country — besides Mexico — to voluntarily leave the Group of 77 developing nations and join the rich man's club: the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The North, on the other hand, is one of the world's poorest nations mired in poverty and hunger — but armed with nuclear weapons. The North Koreans obviously opted to choose machine guns over butter.
The two big stories in Seoul last week were the North-South peace talks and the abduction of 23 South Korean aid workers and missionaries by the Taliban in Kabul. Both stories hit the front pages of newspapers in Seoul.
With one dead, the remaining hostages are in danger of being executed unless some of the Taliban prisoners are released by the government in Kabul.
The Taliban is also demanding that South Korea withdraw its 200-strong contingent in Afghanistan, mostly medics and engineers, who are part of the US and NATO-led military forces propping up the quisling Hamid Karzai.
According to the New York Times, South Korea has "one of the most aggressive armies of Christian missionaries" — between 12,000 and 17,000 evangelists in over 160 countries, second only to the US which has over 46,000 missionaries worldwide.
The South Korean missionaries obviously do not endear themselves to the militant Taliban which reacts negatively to proselytizing and is also determined to oust the Karzai government.
At the foreign policy level, the big story was the just-concluded six-party talks on the denuclearisation of North Korea. The talks in Beijing — involving Japan, China, the US, Russia and the two Koreas — failed to set a firm deadline on disabling Pyongyang's nuclear facilities because of continued demands for political and economic concessions.
As the English-language daily 'Korea Times' predicted in its editorial, days before the talks, "the ongoing negotiations might face some hurdles, if not serious, as North Korea is expected to ask for more concessions, including more economic aid and diplomatic rewards from the U.S., South Korea and other countries."
North Korea's demands include its removal from the US State Department's list of "countries sponsoring terrorism" and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States.
Last week's talks were also deadlocked over the abductions of some 13 Japanese nationals decades ago, of whom five were released and the others died in custody, according to Pyongyang. Japan has refused to provide aid until there is a satisfactory explanation to the problem relating to the abductions.
But the North Korean foreign ministry warned last week that the nuclear issue on the peninsula will remain unsettled for an indefinite period unless Japan changes its stance on assistance to Pyongyang.
Still, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is sceptical about North Korea's assurances of peace and stability in the long troubled peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean war broke out 57 years ago and ended in a truce. In a speech to the National Unification Advisory Council in Seoul last week, the president said the 1953 ceasefire agreement needs to be replaced with a peace treaty.
Meanwhile, after missing a deadline to shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, North Korea eventually kept its promise in mid-July — a closure described as the first step to scale back its nuclear programmes. The unpredictable North Koreans also twice boycotted the six-party talks for more than a year.
As a second step, the Korea Times said the US and South Korea should make joint efforts to deal with North's excessive demands, as well as to ensure its complete denuclearisation.
The decision by North Korea to initially shut down its nuclear facilities has been hailed as a diplomatic success story for the Bush administration. As part of the deal, the US helped clear the way for the return of some $25 million to North Korea which had remained frozen in a bank in Macao. The White House had characterised the funds as ill-gotten gains from arms sales and counterfeiting.
The English language 'JoongAng Daily' said that a peace regime on the Korean peninsula can only be achieved as a result of denuclearisation. A peace regime is dependent on North Korea fulfilling its pledge on its nuclear programmes.
But the North Koreans have remained so unpredictable that lasting peace in the Korean peninsula is still wrapped up in uncertainty.
At a news conference in Washington last week, Christopher R. Hill, head of the U.S. delegation, told reporters: "Once we reach agreement in the six-party meeting, which is probably going to take us to one of these 11th hour deals, we would then hope to bring our ministers together in early September to bless what we've done and look ahead."
Asked whether the North Koreans will be tough negotiators in sticking to their demands, Hill said: "Well, you're quite right. They wouldn't begin to disable (their nuclear programmes) until after everything's agreed."