SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy for North Korea policy said this week he hoped serious negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program could start soon, signaling a diplomatic push after a surge in tension on the peninsula.
South Korea also appears to be signaling a greater willingness for negotiations, suggesting a growing view that not talking to Pyongyang could be counterproductive and talks may be the best option even if North Korea fails to meet preconditions.
The following are some questions about the six-party talks, which have been the only forum for trying to negotiate an end to the North’s nuclear program publicly recognized by the South, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China:
The on-and-off talks that began in 2003 reached a framework deal in 2005 to compensate the North with economic aid in return for its pledge to abandon all nuclear weapons and all existing nuclear programs.
North Korea also agreed to take steps to improve ties with the United States and Japan, and take part in a separate forum to negotiate a permanent peace treaty to end the Korean War, still under an armistice ending hostilities in the 1950-53 conflict.
Follow-up discussions on steps to implement the 2005 deal struck a glitch when North Korea balked at demands for intrusive inspections by outside experts to verify the list of nuclear stockpiles it had reported.
North Korea declared the talks dead, saying it would never return to dialogue with the United States because Washington had tried to undermine its leadership.
North Korea is being squeezed hard by U.N. sanctions after its missile and nuclear tests last year that deepened its economic woes. Its coffers are drying up and it is again severely short of food needed to feed its people.
The six-way talks have already proven to be a lucrative source of aid for the destitute state. It also sees the talks as the easiest way to engage the Americans.
Washington is reluctant to get drawn into negotiations with the North on a bilateral basis and has said it wants to see improved ties between the North and South before returning to the six-way forum. But it recognizes that the forum is aimed specifically at eliminating the North’s nuclear program and not defusing inter-Korean tensions, leaving the door open to the resumption of talks, when the conditions are right.
South Korea initially sought an apology from Pyongyang for sinking one of its navy ships in March. The North denies responsibility. The North has since attacked a southern island in November, killing four people.
South Korea wants concrete indications that the North is serious about progress and says a good starting point would be to implement pledges it had previously made on nuclear disarmament.
Most analysts feel it’s inevitable. There is little reason for the North’s leadership to give up its nuclear arms which it uses as leverage for negotiations.