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Wit: denculearization of N. Korea still negotiable

By Lee Chi-dong and Roh Hyo-dong

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- For now, North Korea's Kim Jong-un regime is apparently placing more focus on economic growth than on the development of nuclear weapons, opening room for dialogue, an American expert said.

Joel Wit, who worked at the State Department specializing in North Korea, stressed that the Obama administration should never give up efforts for a nuclear-free Korea.

"I think it's a serious mistake to give up on that goal and indeed as I said, based on what North Korea has said recently, they are willing to have denuclearization as part of our negotiation, and we should seriously pursue that," he said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.

He cited a June statement by the North's National Defense Commission offering high-level talks with the U.S. government.

Wit, currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is known for his insight on North Korea affairs that comes from his long-time experience with the reclusive communist nation and personal connections with some North Koreans.

In August, Wit reportedly had a Track II meeting with a ranking North Korean foreign ministry official in Geneva, Switzerland, which he did not want to talk about during this interview.

Wit refuted the view that denuclearization of North Korea has become a policy corpse for Washington.

Since Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test and long-range rocket test earlier this year, the international community has increasing grown skeptical over the possibility of the communist North abandoning its weapons of mass destruction programs.

The Kim regime also stated its plan for the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and its economy.

"I don't want to sound naive about this. There are different underlying currents in North Korea, as far as I can tell," he said. "(North Korea) is focused on their economic development. So, I think what I'm trying to say is that we are in another time when the window where it's quite possible there is some seriousness behind (what) they are doing and what they are saying. It's not just for show."

   There are new currents that North Koreans feel the need to develop the economy and compromise on some security issues like building nuclear weapons, according to Wit. In fact, the North recently agreed with the South to restart the operation of a joint industrial park in Kaesong and allow the reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Wit argued the format of dialogue with North Korea and whether involves two, three, four or six parties is not that important.

The six-party talks, which were born 10 years ago, have been stalled since December 2008. The participants are the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

Many observers doubt if the six-way talks will resume, despite the host China's efforts to keep the mechanism alive.

Regarding the Obama government's calls for "credible, authentic" negotiations with North Korea, Wit pointed out that it takes two to tango.

"I think there is a difference (between North Korea and the U.S.). It's not a difference that I think is unbridgeable. In order to bridge the gap, both sides have to be willing to do that, and I am not sure that's the case," he said.

The Obama administration does not appear to be interested in having negotiations with North Korea, he said, adding, "The gap can be bridged if there is political will."