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Spotlight: Hope flickers over tinderbox

by Xinhua Writers Deng Yushan, Xu Ke

BEIJING, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) -- The Korean Peninsula marks a rare anomaly in modern human history: It is unusual for an armistice not to have morphed into a peace treaty after more than 60 years; it is more so that the warring countries are the two halves of the same nation.

Six decades on, the Minnesota-sized piece of land remains a powder keg. And the six-party talks, the most viable way to crack the crux of the predicament, namely the nuclear issue, has been bogged down for years.

That heartrending reality screams for change. Fortunately, a recent string of signs and developments have rekindled hope that desirable changes might have been in the making.

A TINDERBOX OF CONTROLLABLE TENSION

Mainly due to the enmity between the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and their tit-for-tat behavior and rhetoric, the Korean Peninsula has remained highly charged in 2014.

The United States has carried out at least six joint military drills with South Korea this year, racking the nerves of the DPRK time and again.

On the other hand, the DPRK conducted many a round of missile firings -- some in response to U.S.-South Korean maneuvers, others labeled as "normal training."

The threats of sanctions strikes exchange between the United States and DPRK also added fuel to the fire, along with repeated skirmishes between the two Koreas along their maritime and land borders.

However, despite the frequent outbursts, the overall state of affairs has never spiraled out of hand, observed Yang Xilian, a former military attache at China's embassies in both Koreas, noting that the peninsula has apparently fallen into a cycle of controllable escalation and ephemeral mitigation.

In the eyes of Russian Foreign Ministry special envoy Grigory Logvinov, despite the ups and downs, the situation has more or less been stabilized, with the DPRK having demonstrated commendable restraint and a desire to build constructive relations with the world.

A WAVE OF CHARM OFFENSIVE

That desire is obvious. The DPRK has engaged in a wide array of diplomatic endeavors that many describe as Pyongyang's multifront charm offensive.

With the only country that shares the peninsula with it, dialogue has been gaining momentum, albeit intermittently. The DPRK dispatched an unusually high-ranking delegation to South Korea upon the closing of the 17th Asian Games, and the two sides held their first general-level military talks in seven years.

On the U.S. front, despite Washington's muscle-flexing, sanctions and pressure on human rights, the DPRK released the three U.S. citizens it had convicted and imprisoned, a move widely reckoned as an olive branch to the United States.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang's interaction with Moscow has markedly heated up this year, culminating in DPRK senior official Choe Ryong Hae's visit to Russia last month as special envoy of top leader Kim Jong Un. It has also surprisingly opened negotiations with Japan over the so-called abduction issue.

The DPRK's agreement to start abduction talks "took us aback, because they had never admitted the issue before," Yoji Gomi, a Japanese veteran journalist who authored a book titled "My Father, Kim Jong Il, and I" and based on his interviews and correspondence with Kim Jong Nam, told Xinhua.

In a sign of its broader diplomatic agenda, the DPRK sent senior officials to Europe and Africa in September and October. Also in September, Ri Su Yong became the first DPRK foreign minister to have addressed the UN General Assembly over the past 15 years.

A TIME FOR EARTHSHAKING CHANGE?

Among all the harbingers of possible change, the critical ones are probably lurking at the top level.

In a recent interview with Xinhua, Kim Han-kwon, director of the Center for Regional Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (AIPS), a South Korean think tank, noted that the DPRK's three-year mourning period for late top leader Kim Jong Il was coming to an end.

The DPRK marks the third anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death on Wednesday. The occasion bears special significance, as it is after three years of mourning for Kim Il Sung when Kim Jong Il formally took over the leadership.

The AIPS expert also pointed to the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama's second term and South Korean President Park Geun-hye's tenure will both enter their second half next year, which means they may push for some progress on the Koean Peninsula front.

Given those factors, he added, the Korean Peninsula landscape is likely to witness earthshaking changes in 2015.

A FLICKER OF RENEWED HOPE

Amid the shifts of dynamics, sparks of hope have arisen for the long-stalled six-party talks to be put back on track soon.

During Choe Ryong Hae's November visit to Russia, Moscow said it has received Pyongyang's assurance that the DPRK is ready to return to the negotiating table without preconditions on the basis of a landmark joint statement released after the fourth round of the six-party talks.

The DPRK's latest overture, although it has repeated its position for years, appears to contain "serious chance" in view of Pyongyang's new diplomatic efforts, said Logvinov, the Russian envoy.

Yet whether the sparks of hope will turn into flames of breakthrough remains a big question mark, mainly because of what Logvinov called "a catastrophic lack of trust," particularly between the DPRK on the one hand and the United States and its regional allies on the other.

Washington, echoed by Seoul and Japan, has insisted that the DPRK must first show a serious attitude toward a complete and verifiable denuclearization and send a clear sign that it is willing to engage in "constructive dialogue."

Kim, the AIPS analyst, said the DPRK should promise to halt nuclear activities during the negotiations, and Gomi, the Japanese journalist, said the DPRK's top leader needs to pledge to abandon nuclear weapons.

However, Logvinov stressed that relevant parties should not set knowingly unreachable goals or "force someone to move faster than it is possible in the given circumstances."

A breakthrough is not out of the picture, said Yang, the former attache, adding that in order to make the leap forward, relevant parties should change their mindsets and take into serious account one other's strategic concerns.

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