Koreas carefully resume talks

South Korea hoped for a favourable response from rival North Korea on Seoul’s latest push to get the North back into six-nation negotiations on nuclear disarmament, but there were signs that the atmosphere was souring on the second day of reconciliation talks on Tuesday.

The first face-to-face talks between the two Koreas in 10 months came during elevated concern over the North’s nuclear ambitions, following its announcement last week that it removed fuel rods from a reactor, a step toward extracting weapons-grade plutonium.

The two sides were scheduled to have a working lunch before wrapping up their talks in the afternoon, but suddenly announced that the two delegations would eat separately.

Vice-Minister of Unification Rhee Bong-Jo, head of South Korea’s delegation, told reporters that officials reached agreement on South Korea sending officials to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, in June for the fifth anniversary of an accord from a historic North-South summit, but no progress was reported on other issues, including the nuclear dispute.

Asked whether North Korea just listened to comments on the nuclear dispute, as it had on Monday, Rhee would only say that consultations were continuing.

South Korea on Monday promised a major new “proposal” if the reclusive communist nation returns to stalled disarmament talks involving the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas.

No details were released, but South Korean media speculated that Seoul would offer massive aid to its impoverished neighbour, which has been wracked by famine.

South Korea provides fertiliser and other humanitarian aid to the North each year, but says any major economic aid should be preceded by North Korea’s agreement to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities.

US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher offered US support for the South Korean initiative, but said Washington believes aid for the North, “including food or helping them grow food, shouldn’t be conditioned or negotiated as part of the six-party talks”.

A Japanese report on Tuesday said that North Korea had forwarded an invitation to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice via China to visit the North for nuclear talks. However, a US official in Washington denied the report in the Nihon Keizai business daily, saying no such invitation was received. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Washington has resisted direct talks with the North over its nuclear programme.

Tone of talks ‘not bad’

The inter-Korean talks began on Monday in the border village of Kaesong.
Both delegations returned to their respective capitals for consultations after six hours of discussions, and then reconvened on Tuesday for the final day of talks. Rhee had said the tone on Monday “wasn’t bad”.

The dialogue has been the first potentially positive development on the Korean Peninsula since February, when North Korea claimed it had nuclear weapons and said it would indefinitely boycott arms talks until Washington drops its “hostile” policy.

North Korea, with a history of brinksmanship to wring aid and other concessions from the West, said last week it would strengthen its nuclear arsenal and that it had completed removing spent fuel rods from a reactor—which could be used to harvest ingredients for nuclear bombs.

North Korea on Tuesday repeated allegations that “war-thirsty hard-liners” in Washington are plotting to overthrow its government and are using the six-country talks as a distraction to finish preparations for a second Korean war.

“The reality makes [North Korea] note with pride how correct and judicious it was for it to have fortified the defences and built nuclear deterrents in the past, tightening the belt,” the North’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary.

Rhee seized on Monday’s session to urge the North to return to the six-party negotiations, but said “substantial progress” is necessary.

“For this, the South side is preparing for a substantial proposal, and will propose it to the related countries when the talks resume,” Rhee said.

Rhee also made several suggestions for improving relations between the two Koreas. North Korea wanted to talk about food aid and fertiliser for its spring planting season; Rhee said the size of such aid needs further consultations.

Earlier reconciliation talks broke off in July after mass defections to South Korea from the North that it labelled kidnappings.

US officials reported last week that spy satellites looking at the North’s north-eastern Kilju spotted construction of a tunnel and a reviewing stand—possible indications of a coming nuclear test.

South Korean officials have dismissed such reports as lacking firm evidence.

Still, the US and Japan have in recent days warned the North against conducting a test, with Washington saying it would respond with unspecified action and Japan indicating it could seek United Nations sanctions against the North.

Rice on Monday reiterated those warnings, saying that “escalation on the part of the North Koreans is going to deepen their isolation a lot”.

The six-nation disarmament talks have been stalled since last June after three inconclusive rounds. North Korea refused to participate in the fourth set of talks, originally scheduled for last September.—Sapa-AP