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Eyes on Koreas at regional security forum

Official says Seoul will not highlight N. Korea’s attacks in chairman’s statement


An unofficial meeting between top diplomats of the two Koreas during a regional security forum this week may pave the way for the resumption of long-stalled official dialogue between the countries, officials and analysts said Monday.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan will visit Indonesia from Thursday to attend the annual ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia. According to diplomatic sources here, Kim’s North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun is also expected to attend the key meeting hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to run through Saturday.

The two ministers, who will at least be sitting at the forum, may hold casual talks amid persisting tensions on the divided peninsula and North Korea’s ongoing nuclear ambitions.

Kim had said last week that he was willing to meet Pak “through any channel available.”

Foreign ministers of the two Koreas have occasionally met during the annual forum since 2000, but no such meeting has taken place since 2008 when a right wing government took power in Seoul and promoted hard line policies.

“If North Korea is willing to talk with an open heart, we have no reason to reject a meeting,” a Seoul official said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“We are aware of the fact that such a meeting can provide a good momentum for resumption of full-scale dialogue.”

The South Korean government has been refusing to talk to Pyongyang or send it food or any kind of aid since last November, when the North conducted its second naval attack of the year.

The communist North apparently torpedoed a Seoul warship in March and bombarded a border island eight months later, killing 50 people.

The Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul has been firm on not resuming talks with North Korea or agreeing to reopen the stalled multinational talks on its denuclearization until a proper apology is made. Pyongyang continues to deny its role in the attacks.

“We do not plan to bring up sensitive issues and will stay casual throughout the forum,” the official added.

Seoul “will not try to highlight” last year’s North Korea attacks in the ARF chairman’s statement announced after the forum every year, he said.

Apparently feeling the need to break the deadlock, President Lee hinted at a softening stance during the inauguration ceremony of the new National Unification Advisory Council earlier this month. South Korea “cannot stay tied down to the mood” that was formed after the North’s attacks last year, he said.

China and the U.S., who are key partners of the stalled six-nation talks on Pyongyang’s denuclearization, may also encourage the two Koreas to sit down for talks on the sidelines of the ARF, analysts say.

China, host of the negotiations which have been suspended since the end of 2008, had suggested earlier this year that nuclear chiefs of the two Koreas meet to pave the way for the opening of larger-scale talks. While the dialogue partners, also including Japan and Russia, are generally together on the strategy, sore inter-Korean ties have been blocking the process.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the North Korean delegation will agree to talk with South Korean officials ― even about casual topics ― given the recent hard-line movement in Pyongyang, an analyst in Seoul said.

“We are getting mixed signals here,” the analyst close to North Korea said on condition of anonymity.

“It is hard to say for now how North Korea will react (during the forum).”

The North’s heir apparent Kim Jong-un has been purging officials who had led the mood of reconciliation and dialogue with Seoul for a decade, desperate to form a hard-line mood to stabilize his position among the military and the elites, reports have said.

Kim, still in his 20s and apparently inexperienced, has been striving to strengthen his influence before officially taking over the reclusive regime from his ailing father Kim Jong-il.

Minister Kim plans to host a trilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto during the ARF to discuss North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and stalled talks, according to the Foreign Ministry here.

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