BEIJING — South Korea's president indicated Wednesday that his administration may be willing to resume multilateral talks that include North Korea, a sign that tensions could be easing on the Korean Peninsula.
There is "no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program diplomatically through the six-party talks," President Lee Myung-bak said after he received an annual policy report from the Foreign Ministry, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news service.
Despite a long list of potential obstacles, chief among them another North Korean attack on the South, Lee's statement could prove a breakthrough in what's become an especially dangerous standoff.
Paik Hak-soon, an analyst in South Korea, said Lee's statement supporting the six-party talks — which include Russia, China, Japan and the United States — was a sign that the South was willing to scale down its confrontation with the North.
"The South Korean government is making preparations to reduce tensions and engage with North Korea," said Paik, who's the director of Korean Peninsula studies at the Sejong Institute, a privately funded research center near Seoul.
South Korean officials recently had spurned suggestions that they return to the talks — which the North quit last year — saying that past diplomatic efforts only gave North Korea more time to advance its nuclear weapons program and continue its aggression toward the South. On Monday, Lee had declared in a radio address that his country wasn't afraid of war with the North. "Only strong counteractions to military provocations are able to deter war and safeguard peace," he said.
But after South Korea staged artillery drills last week that North Korea had threatened would result in all-out war, both the United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in the South, and China, the North's primary supporter in the region, are widely thought to have told their respective allies that it was time to pull back from the brink.
Lee's statement about the talks came three weeks before Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit the White House.
Lee's linking the talks to North Korea dismantling its nuclear program by 2012 could be a stumbling block, however. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, is unlikely to be willing to part so quickly with his key threat and negotiating chip.
Underlining the precariousness of the situation this week, South Korea's Defense Ministry announced that it would formally name the North as an enemy of the state in its policy white paper for the coming year.
The mixed messages are indicative of how difficult it's become to judge the direction of events on the Korean Peninsula, where a rash of violence by the North and a series of threats between the countries have upped tensions to levels rarely seen in the past half-century.
Most analysts agree that South Korea has far too much to lose to contemplate war with an adversary that's mired in poverty and cut off from the outside world. A military victory and ensuing collapse of North Korea's communist regime probably would beset the South with millions of refugees and severely disrupt its thriving economy.
On the other hand, the North's shelling of a South Korean island late last month has driven South Koreans to demand a tougher military response by their government to any further violence from the North.
The situation is made more complex by the unpredictability of North Korea, which offered last week to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors to enter the country but also has a record of launching surprise attacks against its neighbor. Longtime analysts of North Korean affairs often punctuate their analyses with the acknowledgement that they could be completely wrong.
In the past year alone, North Korea is thought to have torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors; unveiled a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility; and unleashed the artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, which killed the two civilians as well as two South Korean marines.
Unlike his two predecessors, who promoted a "sunshine policy" that called for diplomacy and aid to the North, Lee has developed a harder line that's recently included military drills near the North Korean border. The "enemy" designation by the South's Defense Ministry, for instance, harks back to the term "main enemy," which was dropped in 2004 as part of the sunshine policy efforts.
One analyst in Beijing said that much of what happened next would depend on Kim Jong Il.
"The key question is whether or not the mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula can warn the 'Dear Leader' that ultimately there is no room to play," said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.
Zhu added: "We need to talk, but the complexity for the time being is on what conditions the six-party talks can commence."
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