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(News Focus) Expectations for U.S.-N.K. talks grow after Pyongyang's surprise overtures

2018/03/07 00:09

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By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has confirmed its willingness to discuss denuclearization and made many unexpected conciliatory gestures, leading experts to say that the right conditions may have been generated for a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and the North.

On Tuesday, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae announced the outcome of a two-day stay by President Moon Jae-in's special envoys in Pyongyang, where they met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It was the first time that South Korean officials had met Kim since he took office in late 2011.

The two sides agreed to hold a summit late in April and promised to establish a hotline between their leaders.

The North, in particular, expressed its willingness to hold "candid" talks with the U.S. on ways to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula and normalize their bilateral ties. It also said that it could suspend weapons tests while talks are under way.

"The promise to suspend nuclear and missile tests pending talks is sort of a moratorium on their programs," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "This shows its seriousness about denuclearization and it seems to be enough for the U.S. to sit down with the North."

   South Korea has pushed to broker talks between the U.S. and North Korea through which denuclearization can be discussed. President Moon emphasized the importance when he met with the North Korean leader's sister, Yo-jong, who came to Seoul to deliver an invitation to Pyongyang.

The U.S. and North Korea, however, seem to have an insurmountable gap between their stances when it comes to denuclearization.

In a recent meeting with reporters in Seoul, Marc Knapper, the acting U.S. ambassador, said that the U.S. doesn't want to talk with the North if it tries to buy time for further development of its nuclear and missile programs, as it has done many times before.

On Saturday, the North said that it has never pursued a meeting with the U.S. that comes with any preconditions and such talks will not happen either in the future.

Things, however, have changed significantly overnight by what appears to be the North's changed attitude, which experts see as focused on seeking direct talks with the U.S.

"The point of all of this is to push for talks with the U.S.," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University.

"Through talks with the U.S., the North is seeking to change the tone for the game. It cannot accept the U.S. demand for denuclearization right now -- it wants to turn the current confrontational mood into a peace mood by suspending (the missile and nuclear tests)," he added.

They said that the U.S. has no reason to keep rejecting talks with the North after its surprise overtures.

"As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that he is willing to discuss denuclearization, there seems to be no reason for the U.S. to reject talks," Cho Sung-ryeol, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said.

Critics cautioned that it is too early to get carried away and it is necessary to wait until the North is actually put to the test and forced to show the real intention behind its latest conciliatory gesture.

They said that the North appears to seek dialogue as part of efforts to ease crippling sanctions, which is not on the cards for the U.S., as it has said that there would be no "carrots" just for starting talks.

"This is just the beginning and there will be a long way ahead dotted with many roadblocks," said Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.

"What would the North's reaction be if the issue of the verification of its nuclear programs comes up, until which Washington is unwilling to ease sanctions? This is a big question and the answer appears to be pessimistic if the North's track record is any guide," he added.