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North Korea has apparently told China it may be ready to return to six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs. However, it will do so only if it has one-on-one talks with the United States.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan welcomes what appears to be a tentative step toward diplomacy by North Korea.
Yu says it is good that North Korea says it is willing to return to multilateral talks, but he adds, Seoul needs to better understand the North's real intentions, and that consultations with South Korea's partners are needed.
Yu is referring to a report from Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency Tuesday on the final day of a visit from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. According to the report, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "expressed readiness to hold multilateral talks," including six-party nuclear talks. However, those talks will depend on the outcome of a meeting between North Korea and the United States.
South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan have been trying over six years of stop-and-go discussions to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons capabilities, in exchange for aid and diplomatic incentives. The efforts have failed and North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons.
The United States has said it is willing to meet directly with North Korea, within the framework of the six-nation talks. That meeting has yet to be scheduled.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, says North Korea and the United States will come to bilateral talks with completely different goals.
Yang says the United States will focus on bringing Pyongyang back to the six-party table, while North Korea wants the U.S. to withdraw what it describes as its "hostile policies".
North Korea has always insisted it needs nuclear weapons to deter what it describes as "hostility" from the United States. Both the former Bush administration and that of current President Barack Obama have vowed the U.S. has no intention of attacking North Korea.
It is unclear how Pyongyang defines an end to U.S. "hostility". Washington bases about 28,000 forces in South Korea to help deter or defeat any repeat attempt of the North's 1950 invasion. Washington will likely reject any North Korean demands to sign a bilateral peace treaty or to remove the U.S troops.
Political analysts here in Seoul say North Korea offered a return to diplomacy as a tribute to China, Pyongyang's main benefactor. Baek Seung-joo, a scholar with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, says Beijing has considerable influence in Pyongyang.
He says North Korea only really wants to discuss nuclear weapons with the United States, not with Beijing. However, because China is able to impose critical damage on North Korea with economic sanctions, North Korea responds very sensitively to Beijing's input.