At first South Korean General Kim Tae-joung, a potential chief of General Staff, suggested dealing a pre-emptive strike at their neighbor's nuclear facilities if a real nuclear threat appeared from the North. Pyongyang did not hesitate with an answer and immediately promised to reduce not only South Korea but also everything around it to ashes.
The most interesting point in this verbal duel is that neither side is able to carry out its threats. Seoul will not make a move without the United States' approval, while Pyongyang is not strong enough to destroy the South. Neither side needs this, either, unless it wants to up the ante at the six-lateral talks on the North Korean nuclear problem.
It seems that the duel was meant for the talks. It points to a change of tracks at the talks, although the destination is still the same, for many reasons. Having reached the main goal of its foreign strategy - direct dialogue with the United States, Pyongyang understands that time is on its side. It is not rushing to meet Washington halfway, and is simply waiting for the latter to "ripen."
The chief U.S. objective is to compel North Korea to shut down its plutonium cycle facilities. Washington believes it is time to toughen the demand. It wants to reach its goal, but does not want to be held responsible for North Korea's non-compliance with its political commitments.
Some participants in the talks want to move away from engagement (or North Korea's involvement in the talks) to exerting pressure on Pyongyang. The victory of the main opposition party in the presidential election in Seoul has inspired optimism among U.S. supporters of a tougher stand. Their opinion prevailed in Washington, which saw a possibility of forceful conservative revenge, at least on the Korean Peninsula. It is trying to prove that dialogue with Pyongyang is useless, and the rate of denuclearization is unsatisfactory.
Now Washington insists on a broader nuclear declaration (nuclear facilities and materials) by North Korea. It is no longer content with the version adopted at the end of last year.
Pyongyang has its own interpretation of the current situation. It maintains that it is ahead of everyone in implementing its commitments, primarily, in disabling its nuclear facilities, but it has not received the promised economic aid in full (compensation fuel supplies amount to a mere 20%). The United States has not crossed North Korea off the black list of "rogue" states. Under the circumstances, Pyongyang has no other choice but to slow down its nuclear disarmament. In principle, its conduct is meant to prevent Washington and Seoul from thinking that it may surrender without a fight.
New South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, believes that his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun was too flexible, and is ready for a more pragmatic (i.e. tougher) dialogue.
Such relapses have already taken place during these talks. A search for compromises in achieving a gradual normalization of relations between the two Koreas is continuing despite the tough bargaining between the United States and North Korea. The new negotiating teams from both Koreas have brought a new vision of the parameters and forms of cooperation, and are learning to work with each other. This is a difficult but essential process.
All participants in the talks and decision-makers are ready for constructive dialogue, which is a promising sign. Even in the United States, where the press rates North Korea as "devil #2" (after Iran), Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has praised Pyongyang for conscientious cooperation with its partners in the talks during the past year, and for complying with a major commitment to disable nuclear facilities. Hence, it is necessary to continue the search for solutions.
Both Washington and Pyongyang see the threat of rolling back in North Korea's denuclearization, and are trying to remove it. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher R. Hill and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan have maintained rather intensive contacts in the first months of this year. Although the prospects of another round of talks are not as realistic as they were a month ago, it seems that the sides have taken a break rather than ended in a deadlock.
Alexander Vorontsov is the head of the Korean and Mongolian Studies Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.