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Setting the mood for 6-nation talks


Seoul and Washington appeared to be setting the mood to allow Pyongyang to return to the six-nation nuclear talks, shifting from their earlier stance since the North’s attack on a South Korean naval ship in March.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang on Wednesday and possible talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, coming after a rare policy meeting on the communist state led by the U.S. secretary of state, signaled the beginning of another phase following the Cheonan impasse.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official Wednesday said the resumption of North Korea‘s denuclearization talks and the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship were “different” matters, suggesting some flexibility over restarting the nuclear negotiations Seoul conditioned to the North’s apology.

“Strictly speaking, the sinking of the Cheonan and our punitive measures against the North, and the resumption of the six-party talks are different in nature,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

“The talks are related to denuclearization. Post-Cheonan measures are the security steps we took in the face of the grave matter. It‘d be a stretch to establish a direct connection between the two.”

The remarks came just a day ahead of a Chinese envoy’s scheduled trip to Seoul for talks expected to focus on restarting the six-nation talks.

The last round of six-party negotiations, aimed at the North’s denuclearization in exchange for financial and diplomatic rewards since 2003, was held in December 2008.

As the allies frequently reiterate, Seoul and Washington appear to be on the same page, with Carter visiting Pyongyang, albeit on a “private” mission to bring back an American citizen sentenced to eight years of hard labor.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton early this month convened “a session on North Korea where she brought in outside experts to help us, from their standpoint, understand what‘s happening within North Korea, and use those kinds of discussions to inform our ongoing policy,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

“While we have a policy that we’re executing, we‘re looking to see are there other factors, other issues taken into account, are there other options that have not been considered before.”

Clinton reportedly ordered the State Department’s director of policy planning Ann-Marie Slaughter, who is in charge of mapping broad, long-term foreign policies, to prepare for the high-level meeting to review “fresh options.”

The State Department’s policies on North Korea were so far designed and executed by the bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs headed by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, U.S. special representative on North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special envoy to the six-nation talks Sung Kim and special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control Robert Einhorn on sanctions, with the supervision of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

The closed-door meeting presided by Clinton and Carter’s trip to North Korea, which is reminiscent of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s meeting with Kim Jong-il a year ago, suggest a transition to a more optimistic phase in terms of six-nation talks.

Pyongyang, which has suggested through Beijing that it was willing to return to the six-nation talks, reportedly requested for Carter’s visit.

“North Korea must have a lot on its hands, but it would be a mistake to think Carter’s visit would help take things the way it wants to,” said Yoon Deok-min, professor at the state-funded Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

“I believe the North will rejoin the six-nation talks, but not under conditions in favor of it.”

The latest efforts to resume the six-party talks came to a halt with the sinking of the Cheonan in March.

Concluding two months later that the North torpedoed the warship, Seoul, backed by Washington and Tokyo, has demanded the North apologize for the incident as a precondition for the resumption of the talks.

Wu Dawei, China‘s envoy to the six-party talks, is scheduled to visit Seoul from Thursday and meet his South Korean counterpart, Wi Sung-lac, and other officials for discussions on the stalled nuclear forum.

Having visited Pyongyang last week, Wu told Japanese media that North Korea expressed a willingness to have preliminary talks with the United States and have an informal meeting with other dialogue partners of the six-party framework.

The South Korean foreign ministry official stressed that Seoul’s position that the North must first show “a clear willingness to denuclearize and take concrete actions” has not changed.

“North Korea must also take responsible action regarding the Cheonan sinking,” he added. “After such a serious situation, North Korea can‘t just pretend nothing happened and push for restarting the talks,” the official said.

“Its willingness for denuclearization alone won’t allow for serious discussion (at the six-party table).”

By Kim So-hyun (