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(News Focus) S. Korea says N.K.'s apology essential, but cautious about calling it precondition
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Jan. 29 (Yonhap) -- More than anything else, South Korea wants an apology from North Korea for last year's two deadly attacks before it restarts genuine engagement with Pyongyang. Officials say business cannot go as usual with the communist neighbor unless it apologizes and pledges never to repeat such attacks.

   The demand sounds fair enough for a nation that lost dozens of lives in the attacks -- the November shelling of the South's border island of Yeonpyeong and the March sinking of the warship Cheonan, which killed a combined total of 50 people, including two civilians.

   But speculation had arisen earlier this week that Seoul may be preparing to limit the bottom-line demand for an apology to only inter-Korean engagement without applying it to broader six-nation talks that also involve China, Japan, the United States and Russia, amid Pyongyang's intensifying charm offensive.

   South Korean media became abuzz with speculation after a senior official spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday that North Korea taking responsibility for the deadly provocations is "not a direct precondition for resuming six-party talks."

   The point of what the official said was that an apology for the two attacks is not enough, and North Korea should do more by taking concrete steps to roll back some of the measures it had taken for nuclear development, if it wants to reopen the stalled six-party talks.

   But the remark was taken sensitively because it came at a time when South Korea prepares to hold its first talks with North Korea since the island shelling in an effort to seek an apology. Military officials from the two sides are scheduled to meet on Feb. 11 to discuss the attacks.

   Further fueling the speculation was that the remark came right after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, which also spurred views that the No. 2 American diplomat might have pressed Seoul to be more positive about resuming the nuclear talks.

   On Thursday, a series of officials sought to quash the perception that the South is backing off.

   Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said six-party talks can resume in a substantial and earnest way only after North Korea takes "responsible measures" over the provocations as well as steps demonstrating its commitment to give up nuclear programs.

   National security adviser Chun Yung-woo also stressed the importance of the North's apology, and foreign ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said South Korea cannot overlook the two attacks as if nothing had happened.

   Officials say improvement in inter-Korean relations and resumption of six-party talks are interlinked and inseparable, with developments in one part affecting the other. What it takes to break the current deadlock is a genuine change in North Korea's attitude, they say.

   "It is meaningless to talk about whether something is a precondition for talks or not," a senior foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity, stressing that the ball is in North Korea's court. "We may call it strategic ambiguity."

   South Korea has also proposed that the two sides hold bilateral nuclear talks, separately from the military dialogue set for next month, saying it wants to make sure that Pyongyang has sincere willingness to scrap its nuclear programs before restarting six-party talks.

   Seoul wants to use the two sets of talks to get Pyongyang to apologize for the attacks and take symbolic steps demonstrating its denuclearization commitment. Such concessions from the North would save the face of Seoul before it re-engages a neighbor whose attacks killed dozens of its citizens.

   But North Korea has long balked at discussing the nuclear issue with South Korea. It has claimed that the standoff is a matter that should be resolved with the U.S., arguing that it was forced to develop its own atomic bombs because of Washington's nuclear threats.

   On Wednesday, Pyongyang's foreign ministry renewed the claim, speaking of "the U.S. threat of a nuclear war and its hostile policy towards" the country and saying that it is "essential to find a modality of dialogue for eliminating its root cause."

   The North also voiced opposition to setting preconditions for dialogue with the regime, saying, "It is necessary to guard against the assertions intended to unilaterally put up preconditions or deliberately set the order of various dialogues."

   South Korean officials say they should not send a wrong signal to Pyongyang, raising concern that the regime could try to move toward six-party talks without offering an apology for the attacks if Seoul says the provocations are not linked to six-party talks.

   "If we put forward a specific condition for something, we can be bound by that later," the ministry official said. "What is important in resuming six-party talks and making progress there is for North Korea to show sincerity about denuclearization and take responsibility for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents."

   jschang@yna.co.kr
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