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U.S. Raises Nuclear Issue in First N. Korea Talks Since Kim Died

The U.S. is “cautiously optimistic” about talks in Beijing today with North Korea, the first such meeting since Kim Jong Il died in December and his son inherited leadership of the isolated, nuclear-armed country.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Glyn Davies, told reporters in Beijing he will hold two sessions with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan today. He said he will raise humanitarian issues and nuclear nonproliferation.

“We’re always, I think, cautiously optimistic,” Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman, said at a briefing yesterday. He wouldn’t say if the U.S. and North Korea would discuss a food aid deal, referring to the meeting as “exploratory talks.”

Today’s meetings are the third since the U.S. resumed direct talks with North Korea in efforts to bring the country back to negotiations aimed at persuading the regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. seeks to gauge the country’s intentions since the younger Kim took over and ease tension between South and North Korea, analyst John Park said.

“The proposition is that by engaging North Koreans in talks, negotiations, this is an effective means by which the U.S. side can hopefully prevent future provocations by North Korea against South Korea,” Park, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told Bloomberg TV today.

Nuclear Negotiations

In a briefing yesterday, Davies said the possibility of restarting six-party talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program is up to Pyongyang. The North backed out of the talks, which include Russia, China, the U.S., Japan and the two Koreas, in April 2009 and has shown no sign since Kim Jong Un took over that it’s willing to resume them.

Also yesterday, Japanese six-party talks negotiator Shinsuke Sugiyama met his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei in Beijing to discuss the negotiations, China’s Foreign Ministry said on its website.

Last October, Kim Jong Il said North Korea is ready to restart the talks as long as they occur without preconditions. The U.S. State Department said in August that North Korea must refrain from nuclear testing and missile launches and meet other conditions before the talks can resume. The North revealed a secret uranium-enrichment program in 2010.

“Positive Sign”

“I find it a positive sign that relatively soon after the beginning of the transition in North Korea, the DPRK has chosen to get back to the table with us,” Davies said yesterday, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Davies will head to South Korea on Feb. 25 to meet his counterpart there, Lim Sung Nam. Speaking at a news conference yesterday, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak said North Korea can use the leadership change to transform itself, adding that he is open to resuming dialogue provided the regime is genuinely interested.

Seoul will host a nuclear security summit on March 26-27 to discuss preventing nuclear terrorism. North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency released a report yesterday quoting government officials denouncing the planned gathering.

“We will never pardon the United States and the Lee Myung Bak regime, which push the situation of the Korean peninsula to the brink of war by taking issue with the DPRK’s self-defensive nuclear deterrent,” KCNA quoted Pak Song Il, deputy director of the Secretariat of the North Headquarters of the Pan-National Alliance for Korea’s Reunification, as saying.

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