Senior U.S. and North Korean diplomats are holding rare one-on-one meetings in Berlin to lay the groundwork for another session of multinational talks on the North's nuclear weapons. The meetings come amid expectations that the talks, and parallel discussions of North Korean financial issues, will resume soon. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
South Korea's foreign minister, Song Min-soon, says senior North Korean envoy Kim Kye Kwan and his U.S. counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, intend to press forward with the bilateral diplomacy they began on Tuesday.
Song says Hill and Kim are scheduled to meet again in Berlin on Wednesday. He says it would be necessary to wait before drawing any conclusions from the meeting.
The two men are the chief negotiators from their respective countries to six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea are also involved in the talks, which in theory would provide a package of diplomatic and financial benefits to the North in exchange for abandonment of those programs.
The last session of the talks, in Beijing in December, ended with little progress. North Korea stuck to its demand that Washington lift sanctions targeting Pyongyang's business interests. Washington says the sanctions - which led to the freezing of $24 million of North Korean accounts at Macau's Banco Delta Asia - were a law enforcement response to North Korean money-laundering and counterfeiting.
This week's Berlin meeting comes amid reports that the U.S. Treasury Department is considering releasing any of the $24 million in Macau deemed to be derived from legitimate business practices.
South Korean officials expect bilateral talks on the financial issue to resume in New York early next week, and six-party talks to resume in Beijing by the end of next month.
U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey says no dates have been set.
"We all want this to move forward, we all want the talks to be productive, but I don't have timing for you at this point," he said.
Many experts agree the North has been economically pinched by the U.S. financial measures, which have essentially limited North Korea's access to international banks. Banks have voluntarily rejected business from Pyongyang in order to avoid U.S. scrutiny. The North has also been under a range of United Nations-mandated sanctions following its long-range missile test last July, and its first-time test of a nuclear weapon in October.
Still, Peter Beck, North Asia Director for the International Crisis Group, says Pyongyang can now return to the table without losing face.
"They can say, okay, we've done a missile test, we've launched, we've shown that we're not going to back down and now the U.S. is finally showing some flexibility," he said. "But the North doesn't have a lot to show for all of their boasting. If they really want to improve their economy, they're going to have to make a deal."
U.S. Assistant Secretary Hill is due to visit Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo later this week to discuss the details of resuming the nuclear talks.