Seoul takes hard line as talks be­tween ri­val Koreas drag on


South Korea’s pres­i­dent vowed a hard line on Mon­day as marathon ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween se­nior of­fi­cials of the two Koreas stretched into a third day in an at­tempt to defuse a cri­sis that had the ri­vals threat­en­ing war.

Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye said that with­out a clear North Korean apol­ogy for a land mine at­tack that maimed two sol­diers, the an­tiPy­ongyang pro­pa­ganda broad­casts that in­fu­ri­ate the North will con­tinue. Her strong words pro­vide a good hint at why the talks, which started Satur­day evening and whose sec­ond ses­sion be­gan Sun­day af­ter­noon and was still con­tin­u­ing more than 28 hours later, have dragged on.

Face-sav­ing Way

Both sides want to find a face­sav­ing way to avoid an es­ca­la­tion that could lead to blood­shed, es­pe­cially the North, which is out­matched mil­i­tar­ily by Seoul and its ally, the United States.

But au­thor­i­tar­ian Py­ongyang must also show its peo­ple that it is stand­ing up to bit­ter en­emy Seoul. Py­ongyang has de­nied in­volve­ment in the land mine ex­plo­sions and also re­jected Seoul’s re­port that Py­ongyang launched an ar­tillery bar­rage last week — so win­ning an apol­ogy will be dif­fi­cult work. The North, for its part, de­mands that Seoul stop the pro­pa­ganda broad­casts started in re­tal­i­a­tion for the land mine at­tack.

For now, the at­tempt at diplo­macy has pushed aside pre­vi­ous heated warn­ings of im­mi­nent war, but South Korea’s mil­i­tary said North Korea has con­tin­ued to pre­pare for a fight, mov­ing un­usual num­bers of troops and sub­marines to the bor­der.

These are the high­est- level talks be­tween the two Koreas in a year. And just the fact that se­nior of­fi­cials from coun­tries that have spent re­cent days vow­ing to de­stroy each other are sit­ting to­gether at a ta­ble in Pan­munjom, the bor­der en­clave where the 1953 ar­mistice end­ing fight­ing in the Korean War was agreed to, is some­thing of a vic­tory.

The length of the talks and the lack of im­me­di­ate progress are not un­usual. While the Koreas of­ten have dif­fi­culty agree­ing to talks, once they do, over­long ses­sions are of­ten the rule. Af­ter decades of an­i­mos­ity and blood­shed, how­ever, find­ing com­mon ground is much harder.

‘A def­i­nite apol­ogy’

Pres­i­dent Park said dur­ing a meet­ing with top aides that Seoul would not “stand down even if North Korea ratch­ets up provo­ca­tion to its high­est level and threat­ens our na­tional se­cu­rity.”

She said Seoul needs “a def­i­nite apol­ogy” and a prom­ise that such provo­ca­tions would not re­cur.

The de­ci­sion to hold talks came hours ahead of a Satur­day dead­line set by North Korea for the South to dis­man­tle the pro­pa­ganda loud­speak­ers. North Korea had de­clared that its front-line troops were in full war readi­ness and pre­pared to go to bat­tle if Seoul did not back down.

South Korea said that even as the North was pur­su­ing di­a­logue, its troops were pre­par­ing for bat­tle.

An of­fi­cial from Seoul’s De­fense Min­istry said about 70 per­cent of the North’s more than 70 sub­marines and un­der­sea ve­hi­cles had left their bases and were un­de­tectable by the South Korean mil­i­tary as of Satur­day. The of­fi­cial, who re­fused to be named be­cause of of­fi­cial rules, also said the North had dou­bled the strength of its front­line ar­tillery forces since the start of the talks Satur­day evening.

South Korean mil­i­tary of­fi­cials wouldn’t con­firm or deny a Yon­hap news agency re­port, cit­ing uniden­ti­fied mil­i­tary sources, that said North Korea had moved to­ward the bor­der about 10 hov­er­craft used for land­ings by spe­cial op­er­a­tion forces in the event of a war.

The stand­off started with the ex­plo­sions of land mines on the south­ern side of the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone be­tween the Koreas that Seoul says were planted by North Korea. In re­sponse, the South re­sumed anti-Py­ongyang pro­pa­ganda broad­casts for the first time in 11 years, in­fu­ri­at­ing the North, which is ex­tremely sen­si­tive to any crit­i­cism of its au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem. An­a­lysts say the North fears that the broad­casts could de­mor­al­ize its front-line troops and in­spire them to de­fect.

On Thurs­day, South Korea’s mil­i­tary fired dozens of ar­tillery rounds across the bor­der in re­sponse to what Seoul said were North Korean ar­tillery strikes meant to back up an ear­lier threat to at­tack the loud­speak­ers.

A De­fense Min­istry of­fi­cial said the South con­tin­ued the an­tiPy­ongyang broad­casts even af­ter the start of the talks Satur­day and also af­ter the sec­ond ses­sion be­gan Sun­day. He said Seoul would de­cide af­ter the talks whether to halt the broad­casts.

While the meet­ing of­fered a way for the ri­vals to avoid an im­me­di­ate col­li­sion, South Korea prob­a­bly can’t af­ford to walk away with a weak agree­ment af­ter it openly vowed to stem a “vi­cious cy­cle” of North Korean provo­ca­tions amid public anger over the land mines, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea ex­pert at Seoul’s Dong­guk Univer­sity.


South Korean army sol­diers ride on a truck in Paju, South Korea, south of the demil­i­ta­rized zone that di­vides the two Koreas, Mon­day, Aug. 24.

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