SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea said on Monday it was open to dialogue with Pyongyang if it was ready to dismantle its nuclear facilities, as the U.S. envoy for North Korea prepared to travel to the region to discuss how to reduce tensions.
North Korea has also signalled a willingness for dialogue after a year of confrontation that included the sinking of a South Korean ship in March, killing 46 sailors, a deadly exchange of artillery fire in November, and threats of war that rattled global markets.
But a breakthrough may prove elusive with both Seoul and Washington saying that before they head back to the negotiating table they want to see proof of North Korea’s seriousness to eventually disarm — something a number of analysts do not believe Pyongyang would ever do.
In a New Year address, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak repeated a warning that Pyongyang will be dealt a “stern and strong” blow if it chooses to mount another attack on the South.
The comments came two days after the North, which wants to be recognised as a nuclear power, called for an end to confrontation, urging dialogue after one of the most violent years on the divided peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.
“I remind the North that the path to peace is still open. The door for dialogue is still open,” Lee said. But he added: “Nuclear weapons and military adventurism must be discarded. The North must work towards peace and cooperation not just with rhetoric but also with action.”
Some analysts said that despite doubts any meeting would be soon, momentum does seems to be building for a possible resumption of long-postponed six-party talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
“In what is a sharp contrast to before, it is South Korea, along with Japan, that’s the most sceptical about the six-way process,” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses. “But the government recognises that the only realistic channel of dialogue with the North is the six-party talks.”
Scott Snyder at the Asia Foundation said Seoul’s call for dialogue may be linked to a meeting of the Chinese and U.S. presidents later this month.
“But the policy itself has not changed, and the expectations for what North Korea would have to do to come back to talks have not changed.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said on Monday it remained a prerequisite for the North to show it was serious about its obligations by implementing steps that it had already promised to take under a 2005 disarmament deal.
“By doing so, the North can show its sincerity about disarmament and on that basis we can engage in six-party talks, and it is under that basis can we make progress when the talks resume,” Kim told a briefing.
North Korea has said it is willing to return to nuclear talks, stalled for more than two years after Pyongyang rejected inspections of its atomic facilities.
Pyongyang raised the stakes in November when it revealed that it was operating a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment programme and that it was aimed at peaceful purposes.
The U.S. envoy responsible for policy towards North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, will visit Seoul on Tuesday to discuss the next steps on the Korean peninsula, the State Department said.
He will fly on to China and Japan this week for further consultations on the North. The U.S. envoy for nuclear talks with the North, Sung Kim, will accompany him to Seoul and Beijing.
Bosworth’s visit to the region could mark a turning point in the effort to restart a diplomatic process involving the North, highlighted by Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this month to meet President Barack Obama, Baek said.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall, editing by Jonathan Thatcher