North Korean official to visit US for preliminary talks

After successful talks between North and South Korea last week, the US has invited a North Korean official to New York to gauge if broader six-party negotiations should resume.

Dita Alangkara/AP
South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, top left, walks by his North Korean counterpart Pak Ui Chun, bottom center, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, center, prior to the start of ARF Retreat Session in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Saturday, July 23.

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The North Korean vice foreign minister will visit the United States this week to discuss resuming multilateral talks, which were cut off in 2008 because of tensions between North and South Korea.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited the Korean official to New York after a meeting between the two countries' top nuclear envoys on the sidelines of last week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference, the Associated Press reports. North Korea's willingness to resume negotiations is likely linked to a need for food aid and a diplomatic victory before the centennial celebration of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.

Relations between the two Koreas reached their lowest point in two decades last year after two attacks by the North killed 50 South Koreans.

The North has reneged on several promises related to disarmament in the past, and Washington and Seoul say that this time around Pyongyang must take concrete steps to prove its sincerity, Reuters reports. The invitation does not mean that the US and South Korea are backing down on their central demand: that North Korea show it is serious about halting its nuclear weapon development, CNN reports.

"This will be an exploratory meeting to determine if North Korea is prepared to affirm its obligations under international and Six Party Talk commitments, as well as take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization," Clinton said in a statement.

"As we have stated repeatedly, we are open to talks with North Korea, but we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table. We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take. And we have no appetite for pursuing protracted negotiations that will only lead us right back to where we have already been."

According to Reuters, there is much skepticism over whether these talks will get off the ground. Analysts doubt that North Korea will agree to give up its nuclear weapons, its main bargaining chip in the international arena and the only way to deter an American or South Korean attack.

"North Korea's reversal is dramatic but the U.S. and South Korea remain properly suspicious that Pyongyang has no intention of actually fulfilling its denuclearization commitments," Bruce Klingner, of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank, told Reuters.

"Vague promises simply to 'make efforts to resume six-party talks' are not grounds for exuberant optimism

In an editorial, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo warned Seoul against giving too much to North Korea to make talks successful and emphasized that with North Korea in desperate need of food and the US facing the 2012 presidential election campaign, Seoul holds the most bargaining power.

As for South Korea, it cannot allow inter-Korean relations to remain frozen with the general and presidential elections looming. It also needs to consider Washington's position. This seems to be the reason why the government has decided to deal with last year's attacks on the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island separately from the six-party talks.

But if the six-party talks resume without proof that North Korea is willing to scrap its nuclear weapons program, they will be a waste of time. The North will once again demand political, diplomatic and economic rewards in exchange for scrapping low-threat nuclear facilities or dangling unrealistic offers before the other participants. This will only lead to a repeat of the spiral that made past rounds of the six-party talks look so futile. …

But the government must make sure that North Korea does not mistake the South's desire to resume nuclear talks as a signal that it is willing to overlook the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks. It should remember that North Korea was only drawn back to the dialogue table on the understanding that talks with South Korea come before any talks with the US.

The North and South secretly met in May of this year, but Pyongyang then disclosed the talks in hopes of embarrassing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his government, the Wall Street Journal reports. The North also said it wouldn't negotiate further with President Lee's government for the rest of his term, which ends in 2013.

South Korea appeared to take that statement as a signal that multilateral meetings were still the best course, and last week's ASEAN conference reinforced that belief when North Korea announced the appointment of a nuclear envoy. The impending meeting this week seems to bear out their optimism.

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