|Stephen Bosworth (L), U.S. special envoy meets South Korea's acting Foreign Minister Shin Kak-soo. [REUTERS]
South Korea has announced plans to send 5,000 tons of rice and other aid to flood-stricken North Korea in a sign of easing tensions between the divided countries.
The aid would mark South Korea's first major aid shipment to North Korea since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March. The incident, blamed on North Korea, killed 46 sailors, further fuelling tensions between the two Koreas. North Korea flatly denies attacking the vessel and has threatened that any punishment would trigger a war. But the two regional rivals have exchanged conciliatory gestures in recent weeks.
Thawing of tensions
In the latest sign of thawing tensions, the North has freed seven crew members of a South Korean fishing boat and an American during a recent visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
That move might have encouraged Americans to restart the so-called six party talks. Stephen Bosworth, the US Special Envoy, is in Seoul to try to get international negotiations on the North’s nuclear programme back on track.
After the dismal record of previous rounds of talks, Bosworth tried to keep expectations low: “I don’t really want to characterise North Korea’s behaviour at this point, I am here really for one purpose and that is to consult very closely with our South Korean allies.”
Analysts say the move shows willingness by all sides to move beyond recent events.
Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul said: “They want to show that while they have saved face, they were sufficiently tough after warship sinking disaster and now it’s time to start talking again, maybe not immediately but very soon.”
In yet another sign of mellowing on both sides, South Korea’s Red Cross said it would like to resume reunions of families split between the two Koreas.
North Korea and its international rivals have reached out to each other many times in the past only for it all to end in recriminations. Many ordinary people on both sides of the divide are most likely hoping that this time it will be different.
But complicating the process is a possible handover of power from an ailing Kim Jong-Il to his son as the first meeting of North Korea’s ruling party in 30 years has been postponed.
Observers say the most likely reason is that Kim Jong-Il is too sick to attend. As North and South Korea are still technically at war and have only signed an armistice in 1953, regional powers are anxious to know what changes are afoot and who will command the nearly 1.2 million North Korean troops and another 7.7 million in the reserves.