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2008/07/24 11:23 KST


Top Diplomats from Six-party Talks Reaffirm Obligations on Denuclearization

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun in Singapore on July 23 to discuss Pyongyang's atomic weapons program, demonstrating the two sides' political will to move the agreed-upon denuclearization process forward. Their "informal meeting" was joined by top diplomats from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, also seeking to resolve the nuclear crisis.

   It was the first time for the ministers from the six nations to gather since the disarmament talks with lower-level nuclear envoys began in 2003. The ministers are in Singapore to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum slated for July 24.

   The foreign ministers of six nations reaffirmed their determination to move forward to the final phase of nuclear dismantlement for the communist country. After an hour's discussion, the ministers released a six-point agreement declaring their commitment. In the agreement called "consensus," they agreed that there had been achievements made so far in the six-way talks, and reaffirmed their determination to ensure each country's obligations were met.

   The agreement stated that the six-party talks was an important platform to resolve the nuclear problem, improve international relations and eventually contribute to peace and reconciliation of Northeast Asia. The ministers also emphasized that a complete and balanced conclusion was crucial for the second denuclearization phase and that a verification mechanism must be promptly prepared.

   The ministerial meeting was the highest-level session held within the six-way talks framework, which was established in 2003 to tackle North Korea's second nuclear crisis in 2002.

   Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in an opening speech said that members have made major headway in obtaining a verifiable report on North Korea's nuclear programs.

   South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said the high-level meeting was meaningful in itself. "Although the meeting was not a formal one, it served as a good chance to show that the six-way talks are maturing," he told reporters. He added that all the parties reaffirmed the need to establish a workable system to verify North Korea's recent declaration of its nuclear past at an early date. North Korea received a draft of the verification protocol during the latest round of six-way talks in Beijing earlier this month.

   Rice also expressed satisfaction over the one-hour session. "It was a good meeting, no surprises. The atmosphere was very good," she said. "Everyone essentially confirmed (previous agreements) and the need to move rapidly to finish phase two obligations."

   Such a six-party foreign ministerial meeting was agreed upon last year under an aid-for-denuclearization deal. But it has been delayed due to slow progress in the process. The North submitted what it claims is a full account of its nuclear program in June, six months after the original deadline.

   In return, the U.S. began the 45-day process of removing the communist nation from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism, paving the way for the long-overdue foreign ministerial meeting. The delisting is slated to go into effect on Aug. 11, unless Congress vetoes it.

   Pyongyang's nuclear declaration is one of its two main obligations in the second of the three-stage denculearization process, along with disabling its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The North's dialogue partners have been sending fuel oil to the North as a reward. The six-party foreign ministerial meeting was held as the second phase is closing and the final stage of dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program is about to begin.

   The symbolic but significant meeting came amid worries that some bilateral issues among the related parties may affect the multilateral process, which aims to bring a permanent peace mechanism to the region in the long-term.

   The South Korean minister used the six-party meeting to convey Seoul's formal request for Pyongyang to cooperate in an investigation into the recent death of a South Korean tourist who was shot near the North's mountain resort, according to Yu's aides.

   Yu repeated the demand in his brief conversation with the North Korean minister after the meeting. "They had a chance for a brief conversation with each other," a senior South Korean government official said in a background briefing. "It was a chance to deliver the South's position on the issue."

   A 53-year-old South Korean housewife was shot dead by a North Korean soldier on July 11 after she allegedly strayed into a military zone near the inter-Korean resort area of Mt. Kumgang on the North's east coast.

   Seoul has sent repeated telephone messages to Pyongyang for talks on fact-finding. But the North has refused to accept the messages, worsening its already chilled ties with the South. Pyongyang has cut off official contact with Seoul since the conservative South Korean administration took office in February.

   The Rice-Pak meeting was the second of its kind in four years. In 2002, then Secretary of State Colin Powell casually met then North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun during a coffee break of the ARF held in Brunei. The Powell-Paek encounter came months after President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq. In 2004, on the sidelines of another forum in Jakarta, Powell and Paek held a formal meeting on facilitating the six-party talks, which began a year earlier.

   The ARF is the only international forum that a North Korean foreign minister has attended every year since 2000. The first inter-Korean foreign ministers' meeting was held in Bangkok in July 2000 on the sidelines of the ARF.

   On the previous day on July 22, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu raised the issue of North Korea's killing of a South Korean tourist in a group meeting with his counterparts from the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and Japan, formally called "The ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers' Meeting. "Minister Yu explained that the South Korean government is pressing North Korea to allow its investigation team to visit there to determine the facts and prevent a recurrence of such an incident," Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Yong-joon said. The minister also expressed hope for an early resolution of the case through inter-Korean dialogue, Lee added.

   Separately, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Sook, talked about the incident with his U.S. counterpart, Christopher Hill. Kim and Hill had about 90 minutes of talks focused on ways of verifying the North's declaration of its nuclear program.

   "Assistant Secretary of State Hill expressed concern that such an incident happened at a time when the verification issue is at a crucial juncture," a South Korean official, who attended the Hill-Kim meeting, said in a background briefing for South Korean reporters. "In particular, he said that it is not understandable at all that the middle-aged female tourist was shot to death," the official added. "He said that North Korea will have to cooperate in a related probe at an early date."

   Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed hope on July 23 that the two Koreas' standoff over the shooting death will be resolved through inter-Korean dialogue, officials said. Yang expressed the position in his talks with Foreign Minister Yu on the sidelines of the ARF.