North Korea’s nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, returned from Beijing on Friday just as a top UN political official concluded a four-day visit to Pyongyang. Both missions look to analysts as unmistakable moves to resume six-party talks not held since December 2008.
“It looks like North Korea is paving the way to return to talks,” says Han Sung-joo, who has served as South Korea’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington. “They want to do a favor to China, and they want to placate both the US and South Korea.”
The most obvious sign of that willingness were reports here that envoy Kim Kye-gwan is scheduled to fly next month to Washington, where he is expected to meet the US envoy on Korea, Stephen Bosworth, and other top officials.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted one source as saying the date for Mr. Kim’s trip “has already been set” though there was no confirmation from Washington. Kim in Beijing conferred at length with China’s newly appointed envoy on Korea, Wu Dawei, a former vice foreign minister whose position seems analogous to that of Mr. Bosworth.
At the same time, Lynn Pascoe, UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, met North Korea’s titular leader, Kim Yong-nam, passing on what Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency called “a verbal personal message and a gift from the UN secretary-general,” Ban Ki-moon.
Neither the nature of the gift nor the contents of the message were disclosed, but Mr. Pascoe’s mission appears as part of a drive to get North Korea to return to talks. The most critical sticking point is North Korea’s demand for lifting stringent economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after the North test-fired a long-range missile last April and then detonated an underground nuclear device in May.
After the meeting, Pascoe said the North had not rejected a return to the negotiating table, but Pyongyang is reluctant and holding out for the removal of the sanctions.
"They're certainly not eager, not ruling out, but not eager to return to six-party talks," he told reporters in Beijing.
As pressure builds up for talks on the North’s nukes, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea held lengthy meetings this week at which they showed unusual rapport on dealing with North Korea and agreed on the need to maintain sanctions.
South Korea’s foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, and Japan’s foreign minister Katsuya Okada, promised to put teeth into their words by sharing intelligence – an unusual step considering the history of animosity between Korea and Japan – after Mr. Okada apologized profusely for Japan’s annexation of Korea 100 years ago this year. Okada was quoted by a spokesman for South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak as having remarked, “This year is a sensitive year” in view of the anniversary but that Japan’s Prime Minister Hatoyama wants “future-oriented” relations.
“There is fairly good coordination between the two countries on the nuclear issue,” says Mr. Han, South Korea’s former foreign minister. “It’s to the credit of both the Japanese and Korean governments and the leaders of both countries.”
Lim Jung Taek, foreign press director at South Korea's foreign ministry, denies that close ties between South Korea and Japan are aimed against China, on which North Korea relies for military and economic survival.
“You can say we were aligning against North Korea,” he says, “but not against China” – which he credits with playing a major role in trying to get North Korea back to six-party talks.