Thirty envoys, eight nations, two days and one question: Can the stalled peace talks on the Korean peninsula be revived? A conference held by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation looked for answers.
The two Koreas, in the past, often had little to say to one another. But, last week, the chief negotiators from both sides found the right words. The two diplomats welcomed each other personally, almost warmly - not in Korean, but in English. The venue for this unusual meeting was a two-day Korea conference near the UN headquarters in New York, sponsored by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, an organization affiliated with Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Seated around the conference table were also representatives from the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Mongolia and Germany. Among those present were US Senator John Kerry and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Paving the way for six-party talks?
It was a special event, considering that the so-called six-party talks have been stalled for some time. The last time representatives from both Koreas met officially with envoys from the four Pacific powers - USA, China, Japan and Russia - was in December 2008.
After that meeting, the cat-and-mouse game with the international community over North Korea's secret nuclear program intensified. Ever since it withdrew in 2003 from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea has been quixotic in its diplomatic efforts. It has swung back and forth between signaling a willingness to compromise by shutting down its nuclear reactors and even signing a declaration in principle for a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula and confrontation, by conducting tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. The latter isolated the country even further from the international community, drawing condemnation from the UN Security Council, and resulting in a weapons embargo.
Detente or deception?
The big hope is that, after the death of Kim Jong Il in December and the leadership transition to his son, Kim Jong Un, there will be some form of political thaw in North Korea.
"A door has been opened, and although the opening is not large, it is big enough to go through," says Walter Kolbow, a member of the German delegation at the conference and a former under-secretary in the German defense ministry.
However, it was not yet clear from the talks in New York whether the change in personnel in North Korea would also lead to a change in policy.
"The North Korean delegation gave a very confident performance and, at the same time, the great desire was evident to get the peace process moving," said Kolbow.
While skeptics - in particular from US diplomatic circles - suspect that the latest swing by North Korea is just a new deception, others see real signs for detente. Jürgen Stetten, another German conference participant, thinks the current situation could herald a new beginning.
"This is because of the leadership changes which have either already taken place in nearly all the participating countries, or which are on the verge of taking place," he noted.
Stetten, who is the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation's director for Asia and the Pacific, also said that it was clear from the confidential talks in New York that the policy of isolating North Korea, hoping that it would someday implode, had failed.
"Continuing such an isolation policy would be irresponsible because there is always the risk that things can get out of control," Stetten said, referring to the sinking of a South Korean navy ship and the shelling of the South's Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in 2010.
Is German 'Ostpolitik' a model?
Is the power transition in the North a paradigm change? Will the policy of isolation now be followed by a fresh attempt at the South's former "Sunshine Policy"?
Walter Kolbow pointed out at the conference with some amazement that the mutual exchange of experiences between the Americans and the Koreans about Germany's policy of detente with the Warsaw Pact countries in the 1970s was widely discussed.
"The South exists, the North exists, and therefore there are two Koreas which, like the two Germanys, must move toward peaceful coexistence," said Kolbow.
Walter Kolbow attended the conference in New York
Currently, however, there is neither a Korean form of Germany's "Ostpolitik," nor a new "Sunshine Policy."
For Jürgen Stetten, the fundamental issue with North Korea's nuclear program is also not resolved. The North has not abandoned its program, demanding first full diplomatic recognition by the United States. For Washington, on the other hand, recognition of North Korea first has to be preceded by a verifiable end to the country's nuclear program.
The Cold War, Stetten said, is still very real on the Korean peninsula.
Author: Richard Fuchs / gb<br>Editor: Anne Thomas