Fertilizer Hits the Fan in Korea Talks

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Like a lap dancer in a go-go bar, North Korea doesn’t have time to sit down and talk if there’s no reward involved. Earlier this year the U.S. had to agree to an aid package in order to get access to Northern nuclear facilities; more recently, South Korea had to promise a large shipment of fertilizer to coax its neighbors to talks in Beijing Monday on allowing some 10 million Koreans to reunite with family members they’ve not seen in four decades because of the war. But then bad weather prevented the South Korean freighter carrying the final installment of the fertilizer from sailing Sunday, and North Korea promptly pulled out of the Beijing talks.

Some observers believe the withdrawal is both a sign of paranoia among North Korean leaders and a dogged determination to have their own way. "Hard-liners in the North are thought to oppose family reunions because they fear any contact with the outside world," says TIME Tokyo correspondent Tim Larimer. "Pyongyang needs money, food and fertilizer but it doesn’t want strings attached," he adds. "Whenever North Korea has edged to even the mildest form of engagement with the outside world, it has preceded such moves with a show of force." In other words, Pyongyang only wants help from benefactors whose hands it can bite.