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(News Focus) Hopes rise for six-party talks, but high hurdles remain
By Kim Deok-hyun
BALI, Indonesia, July 23 (Yonhap) -- New hopes have risen for the resumption of stalled six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs as the two Koreas held rare talks but the process still faces many challenges to overcome, officials and analysts said Saturday.

   For the first time since the last round of the six-party talks was held in late 2008, the nuclear envoys of South Korea and North Korea met on the sidelines of an Asian security conference in this Indonesian resort island of Bali on Friday.

   The surprise meeting between Wi Sung-lac of South Korea and his newly appointed North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, provided a ray of hope for the future of the deadlocked six-party talks that also involve the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

South Korean chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac (R) holds talks with North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho in Bali on July 22. (Yonhap)

On Saturday, the South's foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, also briefly met with his North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui-Chun, on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum, in what South Korean officials described as an attempt to keep the fresh momentum of dialogue going.

   Efforts to reopen the six-party talks have been complicated by the North's deadly military attacks on the South last year and its self-confessed uranium enrichment program.

   The inter-Korean dialogue in Bali is the fulfillment of the first of a three-stage approach being promoted by South Korea and its allies to reopen the six-party forum. The approach also calls for a direct U.S.-North Korea dialogue.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (L) and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun briefly meet on the sidelines of an ARF forum in Bali on July 23. (Yonhap)

Wi, the South Korean chief nuclear envoy, voiced optimism about the results of his meeting with Ri.

   "I believe that both sides stepped off on the right foot," Wi told Yonhap News Agency, referring to his meeting with his North Korean counterpart.

   Wi described Friday's meeting as "constructive and useful." North Korea's nuclear envoy also struck a positive cord, saying, "We agreed to make joint efforts to reopen the six-party talks as soon as possible."

   Some analysts suspect that North Korea's decision to meet with South Korea over its nuclear program might have been motivated by its more urgent need to hold a direct dialogue with the U.S. The North had previously said that its nuclear program was none of South Korea's business.

   "As North Korea got through the first hurdle of an inter-Korean dialogue, there is a high possibility that the North wants negotiations with the U.S.," said Jang Yong-seok, a senior North Korean analyst at Seoul National University.

   Jang said North Korea would probably come to the negotiating table with the issue of its uranium enrichment program if direct negotiations with the U.S. take place.

   But such negotiations may be harder than ever to reach a deal.

   North Korea says it is willing to return to the six-party talks without any preconditions attached, but the U.S. insists that Pyongyang must show its sincerity in denuclearizing before reopening the forum.

   Pyongyang claims the uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy development, but outside experts believe it will give the country a new source of fission material to make atomic bombs, in addition to its widely known plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.

   Also, some analysts believe the North's revelation of potential progress toward the uranium enrichment program appeared to be aimed at bolstering its bargaining position if the six-party talks resume.

   The six-party talks produced some agreements in 2005 and 2007, but little follow-up actions have been taken. Despite the deals, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

   "I'm pretty pessimistic," said Daniel Pinkston, an expert on Korean affairs at the International Crisis Group. "But I hope they can resume, but only if they can achieve results."

   "If North Korea is sincere about returning to the talks and bargaining in good faith, and clearly expresses its intention and commitment to implement the 19 September 2005 agreement, then they should take some small, but symbolically significant steps," he said. "There is no political will in Washington or Seoul to reengage unless there is a clear sign that North Korea is willing to implement its commitments."

   In Bali, top diplomats from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan held a trilateral meeting to coordinate their joint strategy toward North Korea.

   The South Korean foreign minister, Kim, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto "welcomed" the rare inter-Korean talks on the North's nuclear protrams.

   The three foreign ministers "welcomed the inter-Korean dialogue on denuclearization held in Bali" on Friday and "emphasized that the inter-Korean dialogue should be a sustained process going forward," a joint statement said.

   The three nations "also agreed to continue efforts to dissuade North Korea from taking provocative actions, and to encourage the DPRK (North Korea) to take concrete steps to demonstrate a genuine commitment to denuclearization."

   "North Korea's uranium enrichment program must also be addressed in order to allow for the resumption of the six-party talks," it said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (R) with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto in a three-way meeting in Bali, Indonesia, on July 23. (Yonhap)