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S. Korea, U.S. inch toward N.K. talks

April 19, 2011 - 18:59 By 신혜인
Allies united as they soften stance over past military provocations by Pyongyang

Facing the increasing need to deal with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear ambitions, South Korea and the U.S. appear to be softening their once firm stance not to resume dialogue until the communist state apologizes for attacking Seoul last year, according to officials and reports Tuesday.

International efforts to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization have been stalled as tensions between the two divided Koreas spiked following last March’s torpedoing of a South Korean warship and the November bombarding of a border island.

While hoping to reopen dialogue with Seoul as well as five partners in the denuclearization talks, Pyongyang continues to deny involvement in the deadly attacks. The six-nation disarmament talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, have been stalled since the end of 2008.

“I didn’t say they had to apologize for the Cheonan incident,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a press briefing in Washington, citing the North’s March torpedoing of the South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. “What I said is we need to see clear, consistent behavior ... for us to talk about next steps diplomatically.”

Toner’s comments echo those of officials here who say the Seoul government is readying itself to discuss nuclear issues with North Korea even without an apology.

China, host of the six-party talks and North Korea’s traditional ally, suggested nuclear envoys of the two Koreas meet to pave the way for resumption of larger-scale peace talks, a proposal Seoul said it was ready to accept.

The North, which refuses to add nuclear issues to the agenda of inter-Korean dialogue, has so far not made any comment on the issue. Pyongyang claims it does not have to discuss denuclearization with Seoul as its nuclear weapons are not aimed at attacking Seoul, but prepared as deterrence against the U.S.

A senior South Korean official had said earlier that “nuclear envoys of the two sides could meet without North Korea’s apology.”

The longstanding allies, however, persist that North Korea must prove in some way its commitment to mend ties with Seoul and also put into action its pledge to disarm ahead of talks.

“South Korea and the U.S. are together on the fact that North Korea must show an earnest attitude toward denuclearization as well as inter-Korean relations for talks to move forward,” Cho Byung-jae, spokesman of Seoul’s Foreign Ministry told a regular press briefing Tuesday.

North Korea “cannot expect relations with the South to improve without first expressing regret” toward its provocations last year, the spokesman added.

Toner had also urged Pyongyang to focus on resolving issues with Seoul to rejoin the international aid-for-denuclearization talks.

“A successful rapprochement between North and South Korea is an essential first step before we can consider getting involved diplomatically again or even talk about six-party talks,” he said. “We’re not going to have talk for talk’s sake.”

During her talks with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reiterated her government’s position that improved ties between the two Koreas come before reopening of any international talks, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said after their meeting over the weekend.

Seoul and Washington are also working closely on taking North Korea’s new uranium enrichment program to the U.N. Security Council, viewing it as a potential threat and a breach of its previous pledge to disarm, officials said.

Meanwhile, Washington reinforced Tuesday its trade restrictions against North Korea to prevent the reclusive state from importing weapons.

Under the U.N. Security Council Resolution, the U.S. has extended the restrictions against Pyongyang since 2009. The restrictions are to expire on June 25 unless otherwise stated by President Barack Obama.

By Shin Hae-in  (