US, South Korea want to push bilateral talks with North

US envoy Stephen Bosworth and South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator appear to be pressing for greater North-South dialogue before returning to the six-party talks.

Truth Leem/AP
US envoy Stephen Bosworth (l.) and South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac attend talks at the latter's office in Seoul, on Wednesday.

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The United States and South Korea agreed on Wednesday to continue pressing the North to show its commitment to denuclearization before returning to the six-party talks.

The agreement came during a meeting between US special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth and Seoul’s chief nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac in the South Korean capital on Wednesday, according to local media. While China and North Korea have been calling for a return to international nuclear talks, Bosworth’s visit suggests that smaller, bilateral meetings are needed before the six-party talks reopen.

"The South and the US shared an understanding that future six-party talks should not be talks for talks' sake and, more than anything else, that the North should show sincerity about denuclearization," a senior South Korean official who requested anonymity told Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency at the conclusion of Bosworth’s meeting. The official added that both sides concluded that improvement in inter-Korean relations was essential for the six-party talks to move forward.

Upon his arrival in South Korea this week, Bosworth seemed optimistic about the possibility of reopening the six-party talks.

“We believe that serious negotiations must be at the heart of any strategy for dealing with North Korea,” he told reporters at Incheon International Airport on Tuesday. “And we look forward to being able to launch those at a reasonably early time.”

Yet, as Bosworth wrapped up his visit to Seoul on Wednesday before heading to China, it seemed unlikely that North Korea would swiftly meet Seoul and Washington’s preconditions to the six-party negotiations.

The multilateral talks involving North Korea, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea collapsed two years ago with Pyongyang walking out of negotiations.

North Korea’s unveiling of a uranium enrichment site to a US expert in November, along with its attack of Yeonpyeong Island less than two weeks later which killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians, has left Washington and Seoul wanting to see a real commitment to peace on the part of Pyongyang before negotiations reopen.

“The six-party talks were specifically created to deal with the nuclear question and the North Koreans know that,” an Obama administration official told Reuters on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That’s why we wanted to make it very clear that they were not being rewarded with a return to talks because of their attack against Yeonpyeong Island.”

With the numerous obstacles to the reopening of six-party talks with the North, South Korean media reported this week that Seoul is considering direct dialogue with Pyongyang as a stepping-stone to multilateral negotiations.

A diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper that the government would shift its focus from the international nuclear talks to a bilateral meeting between the Koreas. Such a meeting might offer Seoul the opportunity to both stabilize the peninsula and convince Pyongyang to consider accepting the proposed conditions to restarting multilateral talks.

Seoul’s foreign minister appeared to echo this stance in a speech at the Korean Council on Foreign Relations.

“It’s up to North Korea's attitude whether it will choose a dead-end path to confrontation and enmity or a path to peace and prosperity," Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said. “Six-party talks are a useful tool, but in order to achieve substantial progress through this, the right atmosphere should be created, including inter-Korean dialogue."

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