News / Asia

S. Korean Nuclear Envoy Cautious About Renewed Diplomacy with North

South Korea's chief nuclear envoy says he is not very optimistic about the United States' and South Korea's renewed diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

Wi Sung-lac cautions not to anticipate quick results from the renewed contacts by his government and the United States with North Korea. Neither Seoul nor Washington has official ties with Pyongyang.

“I don’t expect anything coming from New York. It’s just the beginning,” Wi told reporters during a lunch in Seoul Friday. His comment came during a break in the two-day exploratory meeting in the United States between American and North Korean diplomats.

The top North Korean diplomat at those talks, 1st vice foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan, called the first day of talks in New York “constructive and interesting.”

U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth is leading the American delegation at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. It is the first face-to-face senior-level meeting between representatives of Washington and Pyongyang in 18 months. The U.S. State Department calls the talks “serious and business-like” and says it looks forward to another session Friday.

The talks come after the first open inter-Korean governmental meeting in more than two-and-a-half years. That took place one week ago (July 22) on the Indonesian resort island of Bali when Wi met with his new North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, the vice minister of foreign affairs.

Wi says he avoided contentious issues during his meeting with Ri “to build rapport.” But the South Korean diplomat says Ri did not respond positively after he outlined the steps Pyongyang must take for Seoul to agree to a resumption of the six-nation talks about North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Wi says that among the preconditions set by Seoul is a “cessation of (North Korea’s) nuclear activities and the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors” to the country.”

Wi adds that despite the resumption of parallel diplomacy by Seoul, Washington and North Korea, the South Korean government is sticking to its so-called “grand bargain approach” towards any deals with Pyongyang. He says there will be no agreement on a “partial, quick fix.”

North Korea walked away from six-way talks with South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia more than two years ago, but last year called for the discussions to resume.

The North also has said it is recommitted to a September 2005 joint statement in which Pyongyang pledged to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.

Wi says the fresh pledge from Pyongyang “does not carry much value” because the 2005 document is “vague and abstract.” Wi also did not express much optimism about the ultimate goal of the talks -- the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs -- if the multi-lateral process resumes.

“I don’t believe North Korea will easily give up nuclear weapons…but I don’t give up hope,” Wi says. South Korea and its partners “will work together to force North Korea to give up (its nuclear programs).”

North and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty following their devastating three-year conflict in the early 1950's. Tension between the two countries have been on the rise over the past 18 months.

South Korea insists that relations can not improve until Pyongyang apologizes for last year’s sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, and an artillery attack on a South Korean frontier island. The two incidents killed 50 people.

North Korea denies one of its torpedoes sank the Cheonan, as an international investigation concluded. It also has called the firing on Yeonpyeong island an act of self-defense in response to provocative South Korean maneuvers in disputed waters.

In June, North Korea disclosed that secret talks had been held with the South the previous month in Beijing.

The disclosure embarrassed the government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak with Pyongyang alleging that Seoul had begged for the talks and offered “enveloped money” in an attempt to arrange a leaders’ summit. The North Korean statement angrily said it would not again deal with Lee’s government.

South Korean diplomat Wi says that declaration further isolated Pyongyang, even from its long-time allies in Beijing. “China is a strong supporter of interaction between the two Koreas,” says Wi.

Asked whether some of the North Korean negotiators from the failed secret talks may have been subsequently executed by their own government, Wi replied that it “seems some of those news reports were true.”

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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