Nuclear negotiations to start in Seoul

Negotiators from the United States, Japan and South Korea will meet in Seoul over the weekend to discuss resuming nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea after the communist country’s leader hinted at a possible compromise, officials said today.

Negotiators from the United States, Japan and South Korea will meet in Seoul over the weekend to discuss resuming nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea after the communist country’s leader hinted at a possible compromise, officials said today.

Resuming the stalled talks gained urgency after North Korea declared earlier this month that it had built nuclear weapons.

On Monday, its leader Kim Jong Il told a visiting Chinese envoy that his government would return to the negotiating table if certain conditions are met, though he did not detail them.

“It’s inappropriate for North Korea to attach conditions to returning to the talks,” South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said today. “The North must come to the talks unconditionally and then it can present its differences and all the parties can try to strike a deal through negotiations.”

The meeting, scheduled for Saturday, brings together South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon; Kenichiro Sasae, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asia-Oceania bureau; and Christopher Hill, US ambassador to Seoul who was named Washington’s top negotiator.

The three allies, which routinely co-ordinate their strategies on how to end North Korea’s nuclear threats through six-nation talks, will try to work out remaining differences, Japanese Ambassador Toshiyuki Takano said in Seoul.

He did not elaborate but US Ambassador Hill warned this week that Pyongyang could try to exploit divisions if the nations taking part in multilateral discussions do not adopt a unified approach. The other countries involved are China and Russia.

Since 2003, China has hosted three rounds of six-nation talks in Beijing, with little progress reported.

A fourth round scheduled for last September never took place as North Korea refused to attend, citing what it calls a ”hostile” US policy.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed yesterday that “the six-party talks should be resumed as early as possible,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Li also reiterated that China hoped all parties would ”continue to work together,” it said.

North Korea has not elaborated on what conditions Kim set for returning to the negotiating table. In the previous talks, North Korea has demanded more aid and a peace treaty with Washington in exchange for giving up its nuclear program - measures that it apparently hopes will guarantee the survival of Kim’s regime.

But the United States continues to look for North Korean willingness to address the nuclear issue.

“All of the other five parties are in fact ready to return to the table at an early date and without preconditions,” US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

“It’s only North Korea that claims current conditions are unfavourable.”

Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency reported yesterday that Kim told the Chinese envoy that a resumption of the six-party negotiations also depended on changes in Japan’s position.

It quoted a source close to the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang as saying that Kim complained that Tokyo was blocking the talks by demanding a settlement of a dispute over North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens more than 25 years ago. North Korea insists the issue has been fully settled, but Japan is demanding a full accounting of the kidnap victims.

Akira Chiba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Japan had not been informed of any such comments by Kim.

Japanese Ambassador Takano, speaking in Seoul, said meanwhile that Japan remains committed to opening diplomatic relations with North Korea.

“For the future stability of the region, our normalisation is important,” he told reporters.

China urged the United States and North Korea on Tuesday to be more flexible in efforts to resolve their nuclear stand-off. But it would not confirm whether it had offered North Korea more aid to resume the negotiations.

ITAR-Tass said the Chinese envoy told Kim that Beijing was ready to increase oil deliveries to North Korea if it returned to the six-nation talks.

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