Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, has attempted to open a new diplomatic front with North Korea, proposing talks on reducing troops and weapons along the world’s most heavily armed border.
North-South relations have deteriorated drastically since Mr Lee became president last year as the conservative leader has tied provision of aid to Pyongyang’s cooperation on denuclearisation. This shift from his predecessors’ unconditional approach has unleashed a ceaseless stream of vitriol from the North.
In a weekend independence day address, Mr Lee said, ”If the North and South reduce conventional weapons and troops, massive resources can be redirected into improving both economies.”
Any troop reduction or decommissioning of weapons would come as a big surprise to the global arms industry. Jane’s Defence Weekly last year put South Korea at No. 3 on its list of ”golden markets,” citing Seoul’s plans to expand military purchases over the next 12 years.
The two Koreas are divided by a heavily mined border where more than 1m troops are deployed. Almost 30,000 US troops are also based in the South.
”How can we possibly talk about reconciliation and cooperation when we have millions of weapons aimed at each other on trigger alert?” Mr Lee asked.
Mr Lee reiterated the ultimate goal of any negotiations should be decommissioning Pyongyang’s atomic warheads. Although the South has vowed to pour money into North Korean infrastructure projects if its does give up nuclear arms, Pyongyang rejects such incentives as an attempt to undermine its national security.
Since Pyongyang has flatly rejected negotiations predicated on it giving up nuclear arms, the proposal could offer more pragmatic grounds for initial engagement. Mr Lee’s proposal comes amid signs North Korea is entering a period of bargaining after months of sabre rattling, in which Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan and detonated an atomic warhead.
Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Group, has spent seven days in talks in North Korea, staying on after securing the release of one of her employees detained there. Hyundai operates a cross-border tourism project and an industrial park in the North.
Both of these projects have run into trouble. The tourism project at Mount Kumgang has been dormant since northern soldiers shot dead a South Korean tourist last year. In addition to locking up the Hyundai employee at the industrial park at Kaesong, Pyongyang has intermittently restricted border traffic to the park while demanding big increases in payments for rent and labour.
North Korea is often quick to reject initiatives like those of Mr Lee but over the weekend focus its rhetoric on attacking UN sanctions and forthcoming US-South Korean military exercises.
Get alerts on Front page when a new story is published