x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A year after North Korea's shelling, Seoul looks to strengthen ties

South Korea's unification minister wraps up a visit to China as part of efforts to make progress on inter-Korean relations, as the county holds a ceremony yesterday to mark a year since the shelling of Yeonpyeong island.

Relatives of those killed in North Korean shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last year attend a memorial on the first anniversary of the attack at the National Cemetery in Daejeon yesterday.
Relatives of those killed in North Korean shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last year attend a memorial on the first anniversary of the attack at the National Cemetery in Daejeon yesterday.

BEIJING // As South Korea held a ceremony yesterday to mark a year since the shelling by North Korea of Yeonpyeong island, Seoul's unification minister wrapped up a visit to China as part of efforts to make progress on inter-Korean relations.

The three-day visit to Beijing by Yu Woo-ik appeared to be the latest in a series of moves by the administration of the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, to improve ties with North Korea before Mr Lee's term of office ends in February 2013.

China is the key ally of the isolated regime in Pyongyang and is seen as holding more influence than any other government over the administration of the impoverished communist country.

"Mr Yu wants China to convey ... that the South Korean government is ready to have real dialogue with North Korea," said Young Ho-park, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification, a Seoul-based think tank.

"By doing that, the South Korean government hopes to make a breakthrough in the impasse in the inter-Korean relationship."

At yesterday's ceremony at a national cemetery in Daeojon, the South Korean prime minister, Kim Hwang-sik, told officials and relatives of the four people killed in last year's attack that his country would work to "neutralise" further provocations from North Korea.

South Korea also held military exercises designed to simulate the air, sea and land response to another bombardment from North Korea.

Rocket launchers and attack helicopters were involved in the large-scale simulations, which follow a year which has seen South Korea significantly strengthen its Yellow Sea defences following last year's attack.

The firing of about 170 rounds of artillery at Yeonpyeong island last year killed two young marines and two elderly civilians, and caused much of the island's population to flee, although many residents have since returned.

Street protests in South Korea followed the incident, with the public demanding a severe response.

The mood between the two Koreas was already tense following the sinking in March 2010 of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives, an incident also blamed on Pyongyang.

With the immediate anger from last year's incidents having subsided, and with what some observers believe is an eye on his legacy, Mr Lee has recently promoted a partial thawing of relations between the two Koreas. Seoul this month dispatched hepatitis B vaccines for children to North Korea and stopped sending propaganda leaflets over the border.

The visit to China by Mr Yu, a former chief of staff to Mr Lee who took office nearly three months ago and is seen as less hardline than his predecessor, has reportedly seen him urge senior Chinese officials to pressure North Korea to end its uranium-enrichment programme.

The suspension of the programme, a potential route for producing nuclear weapons, is a key precondition imposed by South Korea and the United States for the resumption of the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear programme. Pyongyang favours a resumption of the talks, suspended since 2009, without preconditions.

Mr Young said "many outside watchers" have interpreted the recent flurry of activity from the Lee administration aimed at building bridges between the Koreas as being the result of Mr Lee's term of office nearing its end, although he said he did not hold this view.

"In my opinion, the South Korean government is now considering the overall impact of what they have maintained for the past four years and it's time to show a more flexible stance so North Korea can come forward from its seclusion," he said.

On a visit to Seoul on Tuesday, Wendy Sherman, a US under-secretary of state for political affairs, reiterated Washington's demand that Pyongyang must demonstrably suspend uranium enrichment before the six-party talks can resume. The US and North Korea have held bilateral talks this year, but have yet to agree on restarting the six-party talks, which involve both Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.

"The responsibility is with North Korea to meet the requirements that have been laid out very clearly in order to ensure the six-party talks might resume again," Ms Sherman told journalists.

dbardsley@thenational.ae