U.S.-N. Korea talks offer ray of sunshine

SEOUL, Reuters

President George W. Bush’s decision to hold broad negotiations with North Korea may dispel some of the clouds over South Korea’s “sunshine policy” towards its former enemy, officials and analysts said.

Bush announced on Wednesday that the United States would resume talks with North Korea and broaden them to include conventional forces and nuclear issues as well as missiles.

Bush, whose administration halted talks three months ago to conduct a policy review, promised that if North Korea “responds affirmatively, we will expand our efforts to help the North Korean people, ease sanctions and take other political steps”.

South Korea welcomed the decision, which it said was “based on the series of recent close discussions and cooperation between South Korea and the United States”.

A statement from Seoul’s presidential Blue House urged North Korea to “take a very sincere attitude” towards the talks.

South Korea can expect visible changes later this month in its relationship with North Korea, Seoul’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported, quoting a former official who returned from a visit to Pyongyang.

“A high-ranking North Korean official stressed unfailing actions regarding the opening of rail and highway links and other items,” said the South’s former Agriculture Minister Kim Sung-hoon, identifying the official only as a close aide to the North’s leader Kim Jong-il.

The South has hoped to open rail and road links across the heavily armed border by September. But the project has been delayed because the North has stopped talks about military cooperation needed to allow construction through an area littered with landmines.

Ties between the two Koreas — technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in armed truce — began to improve markedly in the days following last June’s summit in the North’s capital Pyongyang.

But the momentum has slowed since Bush took office in January, expressing skepticism about Pyongyang’s leadership and announcing the review of North Korean policy.

Bush has also promoted an ambitious and hugely expensive missile shield to deal with threats from “rogue states” with long-range missile capabilities such as North Korea, which has reacted bitterly to its pariah status.

Washington’s resumption of talks with North Korea could clear the way for the North Korean leader’s long awaited return summit in South Korea this year. Kim told a visiting European delegation in May he planned to visit South Korea once the Bush administration completed its policy review and resumed contacts.

“South Korea and North Korea obviously both want to talk with each other, but they have to await the result of a dialogue between the United States and North Korea,” said Kim Young-yoon, of the state-run Korean Institute for National Unification.

Analysts said North Korea appeared to be trying to signal something by sending cargo ships into South Korean waters in recent days — the first such incursions since the Korean War.

“With the ship incursions this week, North Korea was trying to say ‘I want to have a dialogue with South Korea,'” Kim Young-yoon said. South Korea’s said armed force would be used if the incursions continued.

Some analysts also saw less than smooth sailing for the talks. Bush’s decision to address North Korea’s nuclear program and the threat from its conventional forces, much of it arrayed along the world’s most heavily fortified frontier, could pose problems for both Koreas, they said.

“The U.S. position on the reduction of conventional weapons is in direct conflict with the South Korean government,” said Kwak Tae-hwan, former director of Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies and professor at Eastern Kentucky University.

“The South Korean government position is conventional weapons should be handled by both Koreas, not the U.S. and the nuclear and missile issues handled between North Korea and the U.S.”

The administration will not seek to renegotiate a 1994 accord — signed under the Clinton administration — that gives Pyongyang nuclear power reactors in exchange for a freeze on its nuclear arms programme, U.S. officials said.

But it will insist that North Korea begin now — rather than at some indefinite future point — to bring its nuclear programme under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and produce evidence of the nature and scope of its now frozen nuclear weapons program, they added.

For its part, North Korea wants compensation for delays in building the reactors, now at least four years behind schedule, and says the 1994 accord stipulated that the IAEA inspection can only take place once most of the work on the reactors is done.

The famine-plagued North relies on international aid to feed its 22 million people and much of its industry has been shuttered because of chronic energy shortages.

Improved ties with the United States could unlock billions of dollars in aid from the World Bank and other agencies.

The decision to reopen talks will be communicated to South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo at a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday.