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North, South Korea Agree to Retry Stalled Nuclear Talks

North Korean Foreign Minister
Pak Ui Chun, North Korea's foreign minister. Source: Yonhap News via Bloomberg

North Korea and South Korea agreed today to try to revive multinational talks on the North’s nuclear-weapons program, signaling an easing of tension between the two rivals that has been an irritant to U.S.-China ties over the past year.

South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, said his two-hour discussion with North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho was “very constructive.” Both men confirmed the agreement to kick-start the six-party talks, which stalled in 2008.

The meeting, at a regional security forum on the Indonesian island of Bali, was the first on the nuclear program since North Korea walked out of talks with South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. Tensions between the two Koreas flared last year after 50 South Koreans were killed in two attacks, spurring the U.S. to come to the defense of its treaty ally and pressure China to rein in Kim Jong-Il’s regime.

“China and the United States and other members of the six-party talks need to work together to promote a better atmosphere and good dialogue among the parties concerned,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in a joint appearance with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Bali. The world’s two biggest economies share a “mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” Clinton said.

‘Need’ for Talks

While the North has called for discussions to reopen, South Korea has said Pyongyang first had to apologize for the sinking of a warship in March 2010 and the shelling of an island in November. The Koreas remain technically at war after their 1950-1953 conflict -- in which the U.S. and China fought on opposite sides -- ended in a cease-fire.

Both Koreas need the talks, regional analysts said. The North is looking to boost its economy, while South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is seeking to boost his domestic political popularity, said Paik Hak-Soon, director of inter-Korean relations at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul.

The U.S. also applied “huge pressure” on the South so it would hold its own dialogue with the North, he said.

“This is a very positive step,” Paik said in a telephone interview. “From this time on, we’ll see more gestures from the North to show it is positively cooperating with the South.”

A dialogue between the two Koreas needed to take place first before the six-party talks can resume, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Satoru Satoh told reporters yesterday. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have taken a unified position toward the North and are pushing for China to take more action, he said. China is Kim’s biggest ally and the main source of the trade and aid that sustains his grip on power.

Limited ‘Leverage’

“Our leverage is very limited -- but if China tried to stop the supply of fuel and food, it would really affect North Korea,” Satoh said. “We have to continue to pressure North Korea using the framework of the six-party talks.”

China accounted for 83 percent of North Korea’s $4.2 billion of international commerce in 2010, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said in May. China made up 79 percent of trade in 2009 and 53 percent in 2005, according to the Seoul-based organization.

During meetings today between Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, the U.S. told Chinese officials it was imperative that they tell North Korea to avoid provocative acts and engage productively, according to a State Department official who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The official said that South Korea may retaliate if provoked again. The primary U.S. expectation is a display of determination on the part of the North Koreans to address issues related to their nuclear program, the official said.

Japan’s Input

Tomorrow, the U.S., South Korea and Japan will have extensive talks about whether to go forward with North Korea, the official said. None of the parties felt the need to rush into anything, the official said.

Officials at the meeting applauded news of the potential breakthrough. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who met earlier with North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, said the meeting between the Koreas can “create fresh momentum” for a resolution on the peninsula.

“Communication at any level is indeed significant progress,” he said. “There has been an ice breaking.”

North Korea “believes this is a positive first step towards the fuller six party talks,” said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, who met North Korea’s Pak after the talks with South Korea. “His impression from his side was it went well and he was satisfied.”

Walked Out

North Korean military officials walked out of talks with South Korea in February after refusing to accept any involvement in the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. That attack, along with the deaths of four people in the November shelling, raised tensions on the peninsula. North Korea says it shelled Yeonpyeong Island, near a western sea border it doesn’t recognize, to protect what is part of its own territory.

The six-party forum involving North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia last convened in December 2008. The Asean Regional Forum this week is one of the only annual events attended by diplomats from all the countries involved.

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