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Why only North Korea may be ready for six-party talks

North Korea leader Kim Jong-il confirmed his readiness to rejoin six-party talks after a visit to China last week. But the US, Japan, and South Korea want to see key steps first.

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The prospect of new talks to persuade North Korea to reverse course suffered a blow with the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in March. South Korea demanded an apology for the incident, but Pyongyang has denied having had anything to do with it.

Signs are now emerging that Seoul might agree to resume talks without a formal apology. A South Korean Foreign Ministry official last week told reporters that “the sinking of the Cheonan… and the resumption of six-party talks are different matters,” according to the Yonhap news agency.

“It is hard to see North Korea ever apologizing,” says David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. “So the US is looking for a way out of the impasse the Cheonan incident has left us in. But a resumption of formal talks would be too little punishment. Nobody in Washington is ready to sit down with North Korea as if nothing had happened.”

Beijing is proposing that as a first step toward a formal resumption of six-party talks, North Korea and the US hold bilateral talks. That, says Mr. Snyder, is “relatively unlikely” given that the last set of such talks, begun under the Bush administration, ended with Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests.

“That has made the Obama administration very reticent,” Snyder adds.

Only if North Korea shows signs that new talks might be more productive than past negotiations, and that it is ready to honor promises it made earlier, is Beijing going to be able to get everybody around the six-party table at the same time, suggests Professor Kang. “North Korea is going to have to do something to show they are moving the ball forward,” he says.

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[Editor's note: Scott Snyder was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this article. He is head of Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.]