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N. Korea Agrees to Talks on Torpedoed Warship

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jul 12 2010 (IPS) - Depending on whom you asked, Friday’s statement from the U.N. condemning the “attack” on a South Korean warship was either a victory for those countries seeking to publicly shame North Korea or a failure of the international community to sufficiently assign blame to Pyongyang for the incident.

But the announcement Monday that military officials from North Korea and the U.S.-led U.N. Command will meet in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on Tuesday would seem to suggest that Pyongyang is pursuing a more conciliatory strategy in its diplomacy.

The U.N. statement did not explicitly charge North Korea with the Mar. 26 sinking of the Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean sailors, but it did cite the South Korean investigation which claimed that North Korea was responsible, while noting that Pyongyang had denied any involvement.

The statement “[took] note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident.”

“Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan,” the statement went on to say.

“This Security Council presidential statement demonstrates a strong international consensus condemning this attack and is the result of close cooperation among Council members and with South Korea. It underscores the Security Council’s strong commitment to maintain peace and security on the Korean peninsula,” said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on Friday.

“The message to North Korean leadership is crystal clear: the Security Council condemns and deplores this attack, it warns against any further attacks, and insists on full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement,” she continued.

Following the Security Council’s statement on Friday, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the presidential statement “devoid of any proper judgment”, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Response to the declaration was mixed among U.S. foreign policy experts.

Josh Rogin, a writer at Foreign Policy Magazine, blogged that the statement “not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn’t even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.”

But other observers saw the U.N.’s statement as a case of the glass being half full.

“Here’s why it was a win, not a loss: China and Russia both agreed to support a UNSC presidential statement condemning the ‘attack’ on the Cheonan, despite the personal assurance of Kim Jong-Il to Hu Jintao that N. Korea didn’t attack the ship,” wrote Chris Nelson of the insider newsletter The Nelson Report.

China has been slow to join in international condemnations of North Korea and, along with serving as North Korea’s biggest source of food and fuel aid, is also widely perceived in Washington as shielding Pyongyang from international criticism.

“[Both] China and Russia agreed to a statement which referred uncritically to the ROK-led investigation and its conclusion that the DPRK fired the torpedo which sank the Cheonan…with the price of also noting the DPRK denial,” said Nelson.

But Monday’s announcement by the U.N. Command that military officials from North Korea would participate in talks to discuss the sinking of the Cheonan brings hope that relations across the DMZ, which have been tense since March, might be moving towards a thaw.

“Seoul, Korea – Representatives of the Korean People’s Army Panmunjom Mission on Friday agreed to conduct Colonel-level meetings with United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission representatives at Panmunjom, Tuesday at 10 a.m,” read a statement from the U.N. Command on Monday.

U.S. colonels will represent the U.N. since the U.S. is responsible for U.N. forces in South Korea. The meetings are to be held in advance of higher level general officer talks to be held at a later date.

Pyongyang’s decision to participate in talks is a u-turn from its previous refusal to engage in discussions about the sinking of the Cheonan.

As recently as last month, the North had declined a U.N. Command invitation to discuss the sinking and had demanded access to the South’s investigators and to inspect their methods and conclusions.

While direct discussions about the sinking of the Cheonan would be the first step in addressing a crisis that has put relations between the two Koreas in a deep freeze since March, the likelihood of Pyongyang returning to the Six- Party Talks to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – and presumably the dismantling of its own nuclear weapons programme – remains an open question.

Since its departure from the Six-Party Talks last year, North Korea has indicated that it would seek bilateral negotiations with the U.S. with the end goal being a U.S.- North Korea peace treaty, but Washington has been consistent in insisting that such steps can only be taken after the Six-Party Talks are resumed and Pyongyang takes irreversible steps towards denuclearisation.

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