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Allies move toward resuming 6-way talks

Preconditions for reopening dialogue to be delivered to the North ‘via inter-Korean channel’

While maintaining tough rhetoric, South Korea and the U.S. appear to be opening the door to possible peace talks with North Korea, apparently sending messages Pyongyang that the issue depends upon its attitude from this point on.

Positive changes have been brewing on the tense Korean Peninsula since North Korea called for better ties with the South in its New Year’s editorial, in its first mention of peace since conducting two deadly attacks against Seoul in March and November.

Echoing President Lee Myung-bak’s New Year’s message earlier this week, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it is discussing with four partners of the multinational talks on North Korea’s denuclearization ― Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow ― the terms of resuming the stalled dialogue.

The aid-for-denuclearization talks involving the two Koreas and the four regional powers have been stalled since December 2008, when Pyongyang left the negotiating table and conducted a second atomic test.

While North Korea’s two traditional allies China and Russia have been calling for an immediate resumption of the talks, which could secure outside aid for Pyongyang, the U.S., Japan and South Korea have been keener to condemn and further isolate the communist state for its provocations. 

“Once the terms are finalized, we are going to try delivering them to North Korea via an inter-Korean dialogue channel,” an official here said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“All five partners agree that talks between the two Koreas should start off discussions regarding the six-party talks,” the official added, noting that Pyongyang’s has in the past shunned direct talks with Seoul, instead wanting one-on-one talks with Washington over its nuclear standoff. “Partners also persist that the denuclearization talks can only resume after North Korea puts into action its commitment to disarm.”

During the New Year’s speech, Seoul’s conservative leader Lee had said “the door for dialogue is still open should North Korea exhibit sincerity” while also vowing “stern, strong responses” to any further provocations by the North.

Washington similarly called on Pyongyang to take concrete steps toward denuclearization for any kind of talks with regional powers in a press briefing.

“To some extent, what we’re hearing publicly is promising,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, referring to North Korea’s New Year editorial. “However, words have to be followed by actions. There are things that we will be looking for from North Korea that show us that further dialogue would be constructive.”

North Korea, which suffered serious flooding of its farmland last year, appears to be backing down, eager for the food and fuel it will likely receive once the six-party talks restart, analysts say.

It has been a typical pattern of behavior for the reclusive communist state to escalate provocations before returning to peace talks to maximize its negotiating power and induce partners into giving it more aid.

North Korea also unveiled to a visiting U.S. scientist a new uranium enrichment facility in November, sparking concerns over a third nuclear test and increasing nuclear threats. The facility could serve as a second way of producing nuclear bombs with highly enriched uranium.

Amid the new developments unfolding on the peninsula, Washington sent its top envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, to Seoul on Tuesday.

The senior official is due to meet with his South Korean counterpart Wi Sung-lac and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan on Wednesday, discussing the prospects and terms of resuming nuclear negotiations such as Pyongyang allowing outside nuclear inspectors back into its land.

The trip, which will also take Bosworth to China and Japan, comes just two weeks ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s summit with Chinese leader Hu Jintao on Jan. 19.

Having suffered several economic and diplomatic conflicts with Beijing last year, Washington may choose to work together with the world’s second-largest economy in dealing with Pyongyang by agreeing to resume the six-party talks.

To avoid being left on the sidelines under such scenario, South Korea will also likely yield and join the move to resume nuclear talks, experts say.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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