Representatives of North and South Korea met today for crucial talks, renewing optimism that Pyongyang could be persuaded to resume discussions on ending its nuclear programme after it walked out two years ago.
Seoul’s main nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac and his counterpart from the North, Ri Yong Ho, met at the private Chang An Club in central Beijing.
The meeting is the latest in a series of small steps taken in recent months to revive the stuttering six-nation disarmament talks, which include China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
The talks are likely to focus on what kind of preliminary measures the North must take before the talks can resume, South Korean officials said ahead of the meeting.
A South Korean foreign ministry official said Mr Wi and Mr Ri, who last met two months ago in Bali, Indonesia, would resume their talks later today after a few hours’ break. Mr Wi will also meet Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei on Thursday, said the official.
North Korea walked out of the negotiations after the United Nations condemned it for launching a long-range rocket in April 2009. The North claimed it had only launched a satellite, but didn’t convince many. Pyongyang then demonstrated its anger by exploding a nuclear device in May.
The nuclear test bolstered critics in South Korea who said their government shouldn’t give North Korea a long leash when its strategy seems to be to raise tensions to gain more aid and other concessions to shore up a tricky political succession at home.
But in recent months, North Korea – facing food shortages and a listless economy – has repeatedly expressed its willingness to rejoin the talks.
With elections coming up in South Korea, where relations with the North are an emotive issue, President Lee Myung-bak has also indicated a softening of his less compromising policy.
According to his office, Mr Lee said in a speech in New York that denuclearisation was important to “establish confidence between South and North Korea”.
South Korea and US officials have demanded the North halt its uranium-enrichment program, freeze nuclear and missile tests and allow international nuclear inspectors back into the country. North Korea wants the talks to resume immediately without any preconditions.
One sticking point has been South Korea’s desire for North Korea to demonstrate it is sincere about disarmament and take responsibility for two deadly attacks last year.
Last year, North Korea shelled a South Korean front-line island, killing four people, and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46.
During a visit to Russia last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly suggested the North could be open to halting nuclear production and testing if the six-party talks resume.