SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea's president has urged negotiations to tackle the peninsula's nuclear crisis but analysts say chances of international talks are slim because of deep divisions and a lack of pressure on the emboldened North.
Lee Myung-bak, who has vowed a tough stance against any further attack by the North, also called on Wednesday for fresh dialogue between the rival Koreas, saying a hardline military policy alone by the South would not ease tension.
Six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear work, which the North walked out of two years ago, were the only forum to end the programme in return for aid and diplomatic recognition, Lee said at a Foreign Ministry policy briefing.
"I think removal of the North Korea nuclear programmes should be achieved through six-party talks next year," he said.
But analysts say they doubt that can be done, given that the North has no reason to make big concessions.
There may be meetings between countries involved in the six-way talks, but for North Korea "denuclearization" -- the original purpose of talks involving the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan -- is out of the question, they say.
"There could be some sort of alternative process in 2011 but it is hard to say. There is a lot of pessimism about North Korea right now," said Scott Snyder, an expert on U.S-Korea relations at the Asia Foundation.
A meeting between North and South Korea, backed by the United States, could be an option to kick off a diplomatic process although chances of success were low, he said.
Like the United States, South Korea has signaled that it is loath to restart the diplomatic process unless its reclusive neighbor shows steps toward dismantling its nuclear programme.
The United States will not be keen for involvement in talks aimed at sending in nuclear inspectors as it wants the removal, not the monitoring, of North Korea's atomic work.
It also wants China, the North's main ally and economic backer, to do more to rein in Pyongyang, but China has called for a restart of the six-party talks without preconditions.
Uranium enrichment work revealed last month could give North Korea, which conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, a second route to an atomic bomb, in addition to its plutonium programme.
Washington is expected to voice such concerns when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits the United States on January 19.
North Korea attacked the southern island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, killing four people. The United States and South Korea also blamed it for sinking a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors.
The North has increased air force drills by 150 percent in December compared with last year, despite fuel shortages, in response to the heightened tension, JoongAng Daily reported on Wednesday, citing a South Korean military source.
Another analyst said the North's recent hostile acts were aimed at pushing countries back into talks at which it could win aid.
"They are willing to talk about restrictions of their nuclear programme, and they might be willing to accept certain restrictions if the rewards are sufficiently high," said Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Others say the aggression is motivated by issues related to the North's leadership succession.
"I see things being internally driven, not from vulnerability but in terms of making Kim Jong-un earn his stars, of smoothing the succession," said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
He said preparation for the succession appeared essential ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il-sung, the young heir's grandfather.
North Korea has said it wants to build a "great and prosperous nation" by then and the nuclear programme would be a key element of that vision.
"This is part of their identity, one of their few accomplishments in recent years. They attach far too much value to the programme to bargain it away right now," Beck said.
While urging negotiations, Lee also said South Korea must not let down its military guard.
"Ensuring peace on the Korea peninsula is an important task going forward but this can't be done with diplomacy only," he said.
Lee has come under pressure domestically for what was seen as a weak response to the attack on Yeonpyeong island.
Last week, he vowed "a merciless counterattack" against any new North Korean assault as the South Korean army held rare large-scale military drills near the border in a demonstration of military might. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel)