Seoul cautious ahead of U.S.-N.K. talks
Published : Jul 25, 2011 - 19:25
Updated : Jul 25, 2011 - 19:25
Minister Kim sees no major improvement in inter-Korean relations

Despite the recent gesture by North Korea to resume dialogue with regional powers, South Korea appears to be maintaining a cautious stance with its top diplomat saying he does not expect to see “drastic improvement” in relations with the unpredictable northern rival.

Pyongyang’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan will travel to New York this week to discuss the next necessary steps in reviving the long-stalled six-nation negotiations aimed at disarming the North of its nuclear weapons.

The invitation to the North by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came on the heels of last week’s security forum in Indonesia, during which chief nuclear envoys of the two Koreas met for the first time since the denuclearization talks collapsed in 2008. During the meeting, the two officials agreed to work on “an early resumption” of the multinational talks that also involve the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

“Although the talks in Bali did provide us with new hopes (over the resumption of talks), we remain in a situation where we cannot be fully sure of seeing drastic improvement in ties with the North,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told a radio interview Monday.

Seoul will “calmly deal” with the pending issues based on the results of the North Korean official’s visit to the U.S., the minister added, noting the lingering tensions after Pyongyang’s attacks against Seoul last year.

“While the progress in the disarmament talks will naturally help improve inter-Korean ties,” Seoul still wants to see “a responsible attitude by North Korea” toward the deadly attacks, he said.

North Korea apparently torpedoed a South Korean warship in March last year and bombarded a border island just eight months later, killing 50 South Koreans.

“We noticed North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize during the Bali talks, but whether that is put into action is a different matter,” said Kim. “We want to see progress immediately after the six-nation talks restart. The North must allow outside inspectors back into its land to show them its denuclearization process.”

Washington made the decision to invite Pyongyang’s first vice foreign minister upon “close consultations” with Seoul, he added.

Chun Hae-sung, spokesman of the Unification Ministry here echoed Kim’s position during a regular briefing Monday, saying Seoul maintains “unchanged” over its belief that inter-Korean ties can only move forward after Pyongyang apologizes.

A similar mood is being noticed among officials in Washington.

Making public the trip by North Korea’s Kim this week, Clinton characterized the talks as an “exploratory meeting,” emphasizing Washington does not intend to reward the communist state just for the decision to return to the negotiation table.

“We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take,” she said in a statement.

Although Clinton did not unveil the exact schedule of Kim’s trip, sources say he will arrive in New York around Thursday for a two-day trip.

Kim, formerly Pyongyang’s top nuclear negotiator, is expected to meet with Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea affairs, in what would be their first meeting since Bosworth visited Pyongyang at the end of 2009.

While Washington’s invitation took place shortly after the inter-Korean nuclear talks, it is too soon to say the three-step denuclearization process has started to move forward, analysts say.

China, host of the six-nation talks, suggested earlier this year to the dialogue partners the strategy of the two Koreas holding talks, followed by a Pyongyang-Washington dialogue and finally the six-party discussions.

As North Korea’s traditional allies, China and Russia have been supportive of seeing an early resumption of the six-nation talks while the U.S. and its two closest Asian allies Japan and South Korea have been more cautious.

The six-nation talks had been one of Pyongyang’s largest sources of outside assistance until they broke down in December 2008. The communist state has reportedly being suffering from deepening food shortages and international isolation ever since.

South Korea is considering sending its chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac to New York ahead of the North Korean official’s trip to have prior consultations over the slated Pyongyang-Washington talks, sources in Seoul said.

By Shin Hae-in (