By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 8:51 PM
BEIJING - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday described international talks as the necessary means of coaxing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, opening a narrow window for the resumption of long-dormant negotiations.
Though numerous obstacles stand in the way of renewed aid-for-disarmament talks, Lee's comment - coming after weeks of more hawkish rhetoric - suggests that South Korea will not rely solely on military muscle to pressure its neighbor.
Lee used urgent terms to describe the need to resume talks, calling on North Korea to give up its nuclear plans within a year. South Korea has "no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program diplomatically through the six-party talks," Lee was quoted as saying by Seoul's Yonhap news agency.
Since Pyongyang's shelling of a South Korean island on Nov. 23, participants in the stalled talks have been split along Cold War lines - China, Russia and North Korea on one end; South Korea, Japan and the United States on the other- with Beijing, in particular, calling for the emergency resumption of the talks.
Officials in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington have given little credence to that plan, refusing to return to the negotiating table until Pyongyang acknowledges its denuclearization promises.
A presidential spokesman told reporters in Seoul that Lee's comments on Wednesday did not reflect a change in South Korea's position. Before Lee's remarks, however, leaders from South Korea, Japan and the United States had never suggested that the six-party talks were imperative.
"I don't think any party has high expectations about the talks," said Park Hyeong-jung, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Reunification. "But our government thinks that we are already showing our determination and military muscle to North Korea. So it is time to reconvene the negotiations, and six-party talks is one of the forums."
South Korea could also pursue bilateral dialogue with North Korea, a step that would please officials in Washington who are seeking a way to curb Pyongyang's most belligerent behavior.
Finding a way forward will be one of the issues addressed in mid-January when Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with President Obama in Washington. China, like North Korea, wants the six-party talks to resume without preconditions.
The talks have not been held in two years. In the interim, North Korea announced that it intended to restart its Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Last month, it revealed a uranium enrichment plant to a visiting U.S. scientist.
"The most urgent thing today is to manage the situation," said Yuan Peng, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing. "So far the only best solution is the six-party talks. Whether it works or not, we have to try."
Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.