In Two Long-Frozen Asian Disputes, Everyone Agrees To Talk

February 11, 2014

South Korea announced Tuesday it will hold its first high-level meeting in years with rival North Korea. If that development offered a glimmer of hope, another move was positively historic: Senior officials from China and Taiwan met Tuesday for the first time since the two rivals split more than six decades ago.

It’s far too early to tell if all this talking will lead anywhere, but it’s certainly unusual. Let’s begin with China and Taiwan.

Tuesday’s meeting between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi and China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun would have been unthinkable in years past, but the talks’ location, the city of Nanjing, is steeped in symbolism.

Nanjing was the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government during the civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949. The city is also home to the tomb of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of modern China, who is revered by both sides.

“Our meeting had been something unimaginable before,” Zhang said, “but if we really want to achieve breakthroughs we must apply a bit of creativity.”

Wang echoed those comments.

“Being able to sit down and talk is a really valuable opportunity, considering that the two sides were once almost at war,” he said.

The Associated Press has more on what the two sides discussed:

“Zhang said talks touched on Beijing’s desire to see Taiwan ratify a trade services agreement that would allow the sides to open a wide range of businesses in each other’s territory. Beijing approved the accord more than six months ago but it remains stuck in Taiwan’s legislature, a reflection of the public’s fear of being overwhelmed by their giant neighbor.

“Zhang said they also discussed exchanging permanent representative offices, but that multiple technical questions remain to be overcome.”

Tuesday’s talks are significant primarily because China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and sees reunification as its goal. Beijing has warned Taiwan against declaring independence.

“It’s an example of the step-by-step approach leading to modest and concrete gains to manage their awkward relationship,” says Douglas Paal, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously served as director of the American Institute in Taiwan.

Indeed, trade relations have blossomed under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, but there are challenges, too.

As NPR’s Anthony Kuhn told our Newscast unit, “polls show that few Taiwanese have any interest in unifying with Mainland China.”

The Koreas Prepare For High-Level Talks

But obstacles to closer relations may be insignificant compared to levels of mistrust between North and South Korea. Those two nations are still technically in a state of war because their 1950-53 war ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty.

Here’s how Reuters summarized the planned talks:

“The meeting would be the highest between the Koreas in years. They held a series of high-level meetings in 2007, including a second summit of their leaders, according to the Unification Ministry, which is responsible for South Korea’s relations with North Korea.

“Nuclear envoys met in 2011 on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Indonesia. Since then, ties have become increasingly bad. Last June, plans to hold a high-level meeting fell apart because of a protocol dispute over who would represent each side.”

Wednesday’s talks are likely to focus on the reunion of families separated by the Korean War.

“But as always, these are complex and delicate operations where things can go wrong and have gone wrong,” says Evans Revere, a former State Department official for East Asia.

Indeed, Pyongyang canceled reunions planned for last September at the last minute, and the upcoming reunions come against a backdrop of planned military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

North Korea has threatened to cancel the reunifications if those exercises go ahead. Still, says Revere, the North will use Wednesday’s talks to bring up the exercises, along with other issues such as reopening tours to Mount Kumgang. Those tours would be a significant financial incentive to the North.

“Everybody is hopeful that this leads to reunification visits, that would be a good thing,” Revere says. “Beyond that, anything that contributes to a lowering of tensions is a good thing.”

It is unclear if the talks are merely a gambit by the North, but as Revere says: “We have been disappointed in the past, but hope springs eternal.”

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