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2009/10/08 10:43 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 75 (October 8, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Ready to Rejoin Six-party Talks Depending on N.K.-U.S. Talks

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Though it attached conditions, North Korea has made significant remarks on its possible return to the stalled multilateral talks to end its nuclear weapons program. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has said that his country is ready to return to the six-party denuclearization talks depending on the outcome of expected negotiations with the United States, Chinese and North Korean state media reported on Oct. 5.

   While meeting with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao earlier in the day, Kim "expressed our readiness to hold multilateral talks, depending on the outcome of the DPRK-U.S. talks," the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a dispatch from Pyongyang. "The six-party talks are also included in the multilateral talks," the KCNA said, paraphrasing Kim.

   Kim's remarks come amid optimism that Wen's visit to North Korea may have produced a breakthrough in the six-party talks, which the North declared "dead" earlier this year after being punished with U.N. sanctions for its long-range rocket test. The talks are hosted by Beijing.

   The North Korean leader also reiterated Pyongyang's position on denuclearization. "Our efforts to attain the goal of denuclearizing the peninsula remain unchanged," Kim said.

   Kim denounced what he called U.S. hostility toward the North. "The hostile relations between the DPRK (North Korea) and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail," he said. North Korea has said the six-party talks were being used as a tool of oppression, and insists on resolving the nuclear issue through bilateral talks with the U.S.

   China, as the chair of the six-way talks, highly evaluated the results of Wen's talks with the North Korean leader. China's official Xinhua News Agency also said the two leaders reached a "vital consensus" on the issue. Wen said he "appreciated the DPRK's commitment to a nuclear-free peninsula and multilateral dialogue, including the six-party talks, in realizing this goal," Xinhua said.

   U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly responded to Kim's remarks by saying, "The U.S. remains willing to engage North Korea bilaterally within the framework of the six-party process to convince North Korea to take the path of complete denuclearization." In a statement, Kelly reiterated the U.S. will continue to seek the North's complete denuclearization through the six-party talks and impose sanctions under relevant U.N. resolutions to that effect.

   The next day, on Oct. 6, the spokesman again expressed support for bilateral talks with North Korea to foster an atmosphere for the resumption of the six-party talks, but said it still needs time to examine North Korea's true intentions.

   Kim's comments followed earlier remarks he reportedly made to Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo that he would comply with bilateral and multilateral talks aimed at denuclearization. But Kim did not specify North Korea as the sole subject of denuclearization, saying instead that the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" had been former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's "dying wish."

   Those remarks represent the clearest indication to date of the North's intentions to return to the six-party talks. Kim has previously hinted at willingness to engage in multilateral dialogue but this was the first time he specifically mentioned the six-party setting.

   The denuclearization talks, which involve the two Koreas, the U.S., Russia, Japan and China, have been on hold since last December. In April, North Korea announced it would never return to the six-party talks, accusing them of "infringing upon the sovereignty of North Korea" by seeking to force the North to dismantle its nuclear program.

   North Korea has alternated between conciliatory and belligerent tones. In August it released detained American and South Korean citizens and lifted inter-Korean border restrictions. The North also sent a special delegation to the funeral of the late South Korean former President Kim Dae-jung.

   In early September, however, the North sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council saying that its uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons development had entered its final phase and that it was making more weapons from extracted plutonium.

   Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly late last month, Pak Kil-yon, North Korea's vice foreign minister, urged the U.S. to change its "hostile" policy on North Korea. He said at the time that Pyongyang had no choice but to rely on its nuclear arms to deter U.S. nuclear threats and to ensure a nuclear balance in Northeast Asia.

   The North Korean report on Kim's willingness to return to the multilateral talks including the six-party nuclear negotiations came at a sensitive time as leaders of South Korea, China and Japan will gather later this week to address the nuclear issue.

   South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will be personally briefed by Chinese Premier Wen about his meeting with Kim Jong-il during the annual trilateral summit in Beijing on Oct. 11.

   The U.S. State Department took note of the reports and said it was waiting for more detailed results of the meeting. Spokesman Ian Kelly called the six-party process "the best mechanism for achieving denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula. But Kelly said no decisions had been made about a possible trip to Pyongyang by Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy.

   Seoul's Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan also urged the North to return to the path of denuclearization if it truly wants to improve inter-Korean relations. "The government views North Korea's denuclearization as a basis for establishing South and North Korean relations of coexistence and co-prosperity," Yu said. "We need to wait and see North Korea's real intentions."

   Another senior South Korean government official later emphasized that the world should pay more attention to preconditions the North attached to the resumption of the six-party talks. "North Korea's expression of its willingness to return to the six-way talks, albeit conditional, is new. But experience with North Korea's traditional rhetoric make me reluctant to give excessive meaning to it," the official said during a background briefing for reporters on customary condition of anonymity.

   Meanwhile, Russia welcomed the North's willingness to return to the six-party talks on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, an official said Oct. 6. "We support the intention of the DPRK and the United States to hold a bilateral dialogue as a prelude and a preparatory stage for resuming the six-party talks," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying. Russia is ready to resume the six-party talks, Borodavkin said.

   Japan also welcomed North Korea's conditional willingness to return to six-party talks. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said he hoped the multilateral forum would resume soon. North Korea "had until now articulated clearly dismissive views on six-way talks. But it is a welcome step that it has specifically referred to the term 'six-party talks' in its statement," Okada told reporters.

   Experts in Seoul, however, say it is meaningful that Kim directly mentioned the six-way talks in his meeting with Wen, although it remains uncertain whether Pyongyang will return to the dialogue, which it earlier rejected as serving the interests of regional powers. "Above all, there is big significance in that Kim made an official reference to the six-way talks," said professor Kim Yong-hyun at Dongguk University in Seoul.

   It is also message for the Obama administration to set up a bilateral meeting at an early date, he said. "Chances are growing that North Korea-U.S. dialogue will take place within this month," Kim added. "The six-party talks could be held no later than November."

   But Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University, cautioned against optimism. He noted that the North has set the results of its direct talks with the U.S. as a precondition for wider negotiations. "I think it is more like face-saving rhetoric for China," he said.

   Yoo said the Chinese premier's trip to North Korea this week was successful as it reaffirmed the alliance between the two sides as they marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations and demonstrated Beijing's influence over Pyongyang. "With regard to the nuclear issue, however, China failed to meet expectations that it will persuade North Korea to return to the six-way talks unconditionally," he said.

   John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, said Kim's remarks were aimed at pleasing China, its idealogical ally and biggest benefactor.

   Feffer, however, added that the apparent policy shift by the North is also aimed at circumventing international as well as Chinese pressure to come back to the six-party talks. "North Korea has been willing to participate in multilateral talks as long as it achieves its objectives through bilateral discussions, and the multilateral talks validate these bilateral understandings," he said.

   Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said: "The point is that things are never as good as they seem or as bad as they seem with North Korea. At the moment Pyongyang obviously wants to re-engage and is saying all the right things to the U.S.A. and China to restart negotiations."

   Roy expected Bosworth will meet with North Koreans in either Pyongyang or Beijing soon. "I don't expect, however, that once they begin those negotiations will be any easier than before," he said. "The North Koreans are ready to test their resolve by threatening to go back to hostile and provocative behavior if Pyongyang does not get its way in the upcoming talks."