Korea talks raise hopes; history may scuttle them

SEOUL, South Korea – The two Koreas will hold their highest-level talks in years Wednesday in an effort to restore scrapped joint economic projects and ease animosity marked by recent threats of nuclear war. That in itself is progress, though there are already hints that disputes in their bloody history could thwart efforts to better ties.

Still, just setting up the two-day meeting in Seoul, through a 17-hour negotiating session that ended early Monday, required the kind of diplomatic resolve that has long been absent in inter-Korean relations, and analysts say it could be a tentative new start. It’s also a political and diplomatic victory for new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who expressed her country’s interest in talks and rebuilding trust even as she batted back North Korean war rhetoric with vows to hit back strongly if attacked.

“It’s very significant that they’re sitting down and talking at all … after all the heated rhetoric this spring,” said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “It shows political will. Both sides could have called it off.”

The main topics will be stalled rapprochement projects left over from friendlier days, including the resumption of operations at a jointly run factory park just north of the border. It was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation until Pyongyang pulled out its workers in April during heightened tensions that followed its February nuclear test.

North Korea, however, is also pushing for something Seoul hasn’t agreed to: A discussion Wednesday of how to jointly commemorate past inter-Korean statements, including the anniversary Saturday of a statement settled during a landmark 2000 summit between liberal President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the current ruler’s late father.

This matters to North Korea because the June 15 statement from the 2000 summit, along with another 2007 leaders’ summit, include both important symbolic nods to future reconciliation and also economic cooperation agreements that would benefit the North financially.

Those commitments faded after Park’s conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, took office in 2008. His insistence that large-scale government aid be linked to North Korea making progress on past commitments to abandon its nuclear ambitions drew a furious reaction from Pyongyang.