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[Newsmaker] S. Korea cautious about return to six-party talks

As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has reportedly agreed to return to six-party talks, South Korea reaffirmed Friday that talks on denuclearization should be discussed first among the two Koreas and the US during planned summits, before the other nations are involved.

North Korean leader Kim told Chinese President Xi Jinping during talks in Beijing last week that he agreed to return to six-party talks on his nation’s nuclear program and missile tests, the Nikkei newspaper said Thursday, quoting multiple sources.

“After holding an inter-Korean summit, a North Korea-US summit and a trilateral summit among South Korea, North Korea and the US, we will see (whether six-party talks will be helpful in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula)” a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters on the condition of anonymity. “It is not that the government is considering six-party talks.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in earlier said that the upcoming North Korea-US summit, expected to happen before the end of May, could lead to a trilateral summit of Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington on denuclearizing the North.

Before Kim meets US President Donald Trump for talks, President Moon is set to sit down with Kim for talks on the South’s side of the truce village of Panmunjeom on April 27.

The Cheong Wa Dae official, however, said that the six-party talks could still take place if there is a need for more guarantees from related countries, following a potential three-way summit among the Koreas and the US.

In this file photo provided Wednesday, March 28, 2018, by China's Xinhua News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing. (Yonhap-AP-Xinhua)
In this file photo provided Wednesday, March 28, 2018, by China's Xinhua News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing. (Yonhap-AP-Xinhua)
The remark appears to reflect concerns that multilateral talks, such as six-party talks, could possibly protract negotiations over the North’s nuclear programs without any tangible end to the nuclear standoff.

The six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan began in 2003 to persuade the North to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the talks collapsed in 2008, largely because the North refused to allow inspectors to verify that it had shut down its nuclear programs.

Through planned negotiations between the leaders of the US and North Korea, South Korea’s Moon appears to hope to focus on having them agree to a broad term of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, putting aside details on how the goal can be achieved.

“The Korean government seems to be trying to focus on the upcoming inter-Korean talks, North Korea-US talks and then the trilateral talks among the countries for now,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. 

“It’s because when there are too many players, things may not work well.”

Having all the negotiating counterparts on the platform could make it difficult for them to present a united front in resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue, critics say, which could result in North Korea buying time to perfect its nuclear and missile technologies.

“But ultimately, it is necessary to have the platform of six-party talks to involve China and Russia. The two countries are key in the denuclearization process, especially in the process of implementing and easing sanctions against North Korea.”

He also pointed out that the North, which is under multilayered sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, the US, South Korea and other countries, might prefer the platform of the six-party talks, as it could enable it to take things slowly and demand concessions step-by-step as it takes measures to denuclearize.

The US declined to comment on the resumption of the six-party talks.

“While we will not comment on our diplomatic discussions, we are focused on ensuring that negotiations lead to concrete steps towards the goal of denuclearization,” said Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the US Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. 

“The international community is unified in our desire to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. We are working with our allies and partners to achieve the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the DPRK."

The isolated country's leader Kim has been on a diplomatic offensive since he offered to improve inter-Korean ties and participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in his New Year’s speech.

After Kim agreed to hold a summit with Trump and Moon, he has been seen broadening his diplomatic activities to gain more leverage ahead of the historic meetings. 

Most notably, Kim met China’s President Xi during a surprise visit to Beijing. It was his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011, which experts see as aimed at improving strained ties with China, the North’s traditional ally and major trading partner.

China, which has chaired the six-party talks and has recently been seen as left out in negotiations on the North’s nuclear programs, might have wanted to prove that it is still a key player and holds sway over the communist neighbor. 

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho will visit Russia from Monday to Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. There are also speculations that North Korea’s young leader will visit the country in the near future.

Ri attended a ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Thursday.

A separate group of North Korean officials met with their European Union counterparts in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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