North and South Korea will once again try to break the year-long impasse over the North's nuclear weapons program at economic talks starting Thursday. Seoul will use the opportunity to push Pyongyang to attend another round of multilateral talks.
A five-member South Korean delegation left for Pyongyang Wednesday to hold talks on joint economic projects. But the North Korean nuclear dispute is expected to top the South's agenda at the four-day meeting.
Kim Gwang-lim, the head of the South's delegation, told reporters that the nuclear issue will be discussed, as long as it does not hinder cooperative projects such as building road and rail links across the divided Korean Peninsula. The two nations, which have been divided for more than half a century, also will discuss constructing an industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
The South Korean delegates are expected to push North Korea to agree to a date for a second round of six-party talks on the nuclear crisis. Last week Pyongyang agreed in principle to attend the discussions, but they have yet to be scheduled. The first round of talks with China, Japan, the United States, North and South Korea and Russia took place in Beijing in August. The meeting ended inconclusively.
"It remains to be seen how North Korea will react at this time," says Chun Hong-chan, a North Korean affairs expert at Pusan University in South Korea. "I hope the regional pressure will prevail in the end, so that North Korea will make a softer attitude toward South Korea on the bilateral level too, gradually."
Pyongyang is pressing the United States to provide a security guarantee and financial aid, while Washington first wants a verifiable halt to the North's effort to build nuclear weapons. Last month, the isolated Stalinist state said it would consider a Bush administration offer for written security assurances in return for ending its nuclear programs - an idea it had previously rejected.
The nuclear crisis began a year ago, when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted it had a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons - in defiance of international agreements.
An international consortium in charge of building two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea met in New York Tuesday. It postponed a decision on whether to suspend or end the project.
The group, which includes Japan, South Korea, the United States and the European Union, says it will make a decision within 16 days. It had pledged to build the reactors in 1994 when North Korea agreed to give up an earlier attempt to build nuclear weapons.