SEOUL, South Korea — First comes the crisis, then come the talks.
The routine is so familiar — calling for talks, calling them off, and round again — it’s hard to sense any genuine enthusiasm for the recently announced meeting between the two prickly Korean neighbors.
Hours after U.S. President Barack Obama and China's President Hu Jintao expressed joint concern over North Korea's nuclear program in a statement this week, the North requested a meeting to discuss "military issues." The South wasted no time in accepting.
Now South Korea is calling for talks to take place next week — and the two defense ministers will likely meet next month.
But even if these talks do reach liftoff, it's not at all clear they will help ease the tension caused by the North's sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March and the artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island in November. Not to mention the one-two punch in which the North unveiled a new nuclear reactor immediately prior to shelling Yeongpyeong.
South Korean officials have sworn that these talks, this time, will be different. But it's hard to see how that could be true.
In the past, the way the pattern has played out, said a South Korean official who wished to remain nameless, goes a little something like this: “North Korea provokes, tension arises, North Korea suggests we resume dialogue, South Korea accepts and gives aid. ... That’s the pattern of the past."
But that’s not going to happen again, he said. This time, “North Korea must make more clear and specific remarks.”
Meanwhile, the South will take “anticipated steps” to increase its strength — a warning that things “will be different from the past 20 to 30 years.”
This time, South Korea won't fall for promises. No way, say officials, will the South shower North Korea with food, fertilizer and other forms of aid as was done in the decade of left/liberal leadership before conservative President Lee Myung-bak came to power three years ago.
The last thing South Korea wants is to give the impression it's about to accept the North’s demand for returning to six-party talks without preconditions. They’re sticking to their original demand — that North Korea apologize for the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong.
“We have a natural sequence,” said the official at the Blue House, the center of presidential power. “First you have to admit what you did. Second you have to apologize, and third you have to promise not to commit such an offense again." And you do not “talk about humanitarian assistance,” he said, at least “without mentioning anything” in return.
Moreover, he added, “North Korea clearly understands.” Just how much it understands, however, remains to be seen.
North Korea has acknowledged the attack on Yeonpyeong, but said it was provoked by South Korean marine exercises in North Korean waters. The North, however, has repeatedly denied any complicity in the sinking of the Cheonan — in much the same way it once denied anything to do with enriched uranium. It isn't likely all of a sudden to turn around and acknowledge its role in the attack.
Clever diplomats may manage to get around the issue of apologizing with some artful expressions of general regret, but there’s still the overriding question of the North’s nuclear program.
Officials here are treating the mere mention of concern about the North’s uranium enrichment program by Obama and Hu as a triumph. It’s hard to see how this will directly translate into the North giving up its beloved nukes, though.
South Korean officials view denuclearization of the North as “the most important pending security issue.” North Korea for its part isn’t saying a thing about its nuclear program.
If there is any indication that things are different, it may be seen in South Korea's unprecedented rescue operation Friday. After much hesitation, the South Korean navy stormed a South Korean freighter that a band of Somali pirates had hijacked and been holding for a week.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak treated the rescue by South Korean commandos, in which eight pirates died, five were captured and all 21 crew members were rescued, as a great victory for South Korea as well as a lesson for North Korea.
Lee did not miss the opportunity to show he is willing to deploy military force, as he put it on national television, against “any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future.”
Nobody is going to forget that episode when the Korean defense ministers meet.