Twinkle of hope on Korea

The chief nuclear negotiators of South and North Korea met on Friday for the first time since 2008, raising cautious hopes that the countries were inching toward resuming broader talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

By Choe Sang Hun

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Published: Sun 24 Jul 2011, 8:32 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:49 AM

Wi Sung-lac of South Korea and Ri Yong-ho, a newly appointed North Korean envoy to the six-party talks, met on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional security forum on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, officials in Seoul said.

The meeting marked the first time the two Koreas’ nuclear envoys had sat together since the chief delegates to the six-nation talks met in late 2008. The talks have been stalled amid tensions over South Korea’s harder line toward the North, UN sanctions imposed on the North after it launched a long-range rocket and staged its second nuclear test in 2009, and military actions by the North, including the shelling of a South Korean border island last November.

The need to check North Korea’s nuclear weapons development gained urgency after Pyongyang revealed the existence of an industrial-scale plant for enriching uranium last November. That showed that the North was gaining a new means of making nuclear bombs – in addition to its existing plutonium programme – and potentially of proliferating the technology.

Seoul has insisted that the United States and the other parties to the six-nation talks – China, Russia and Japan – not give in to what it considers a North Korean tactic of using military provocations and other tension-raising maneuvers to pressure the others to join the nuclear talks under terms in its favour.

The meeting in Bali met a South Korean condition for reconvening the six-party talks, namely that the North sit down with the South first to discuss its nuclear weapons programme.

“We have agreed to make efforts to reconvene the six-party talks as soon as possible,” Ri said in Bali after his meeting with Wi.

Despite the upbeat comment, it remained unclear whether Ri had given Wi a persuasive commitment to denuclearisation, another South Korean condition for returning to the six-party talks.

Having North Korea sit face to face with the South over its nuclear weapons programmes is symbolically important to the South. Although Pyongyang has benefited from aid from the South, it has insisted that its nuclear programme is an issue between itself and Washington.

After months of boycotting the nuclear disarmament talks, North Korea recently called for their resumption. North Korea says it would be willing to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes in return for economic rewards, diplomatic recognition by the United States, a peace treaty with Washington and other measures it says would ensure the Pyongyang government’s security.

After years of fruitless negotiations, suspicions have grown among some South Korean and US officials that Pyongyang may be using the talks to extract economic concessions while buying time to perfect its nuclear weapons technology.

But Washington and its allies have been unable to find an alternative to negotiations, aside from economic sanctions and urging China to use its influence on Pyongyang.

The meeting on Friday may be followed by a higher-level meeting between Pak and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan, who is also in Bali, officials in Seoul said.

The Associated Press quoted a senior US official as calling the Wi-Ri meeting the “first big interaction” between the two Koreas in many months and saying that it could lead to increased interaction in the months to come.


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