U.S. and North Korean diplomats met for several hours in New York on Thursday for talks that American officials described as an effort to gauge whether North Korea is willing to talk seriously about abandoning its nuclear program.
Neither side divulged much about what was said. North Korean first vice foreign minister Kim Kye-Gwan called the atmosphere “good,” and, in an equally terse written statement, U.S. officials said the meeting was “serious and business-like.”
In recent days, U.S. officials emphasized that the meeting would be exploratory and a test of North Korea’s seriousness about reviving six-party talks — also involving China, South Korea, Japan and Russia — that have been stalled since 2008.
After years of failed efforts to negotiate with the the isolated and authoritarian leadership of North Korea, U.S. officials said they are wary of engaging again without clear commitment.
“This is a chance for us to sound out the North Koreans,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. The talks are expected to continue Friday.
North Korea has issued several statements in seeming attempts to gain a diplomatic advantage. On Wednesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency called for the United States to sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sin Son Ho, warned the same day that the United States will spark a new nuclear arms race if it continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal and expand its missile defense systems.
The U.S. invitation to meet with the North Koreans came two days after a meeting in Bali between North and South Korea’s nuclear envoys at an Asian foreign ministers summit.
South Korea’s willingness to go along with that plan was especially significant, representing a softening of policy after a year of turmoil on the peninsula. In March 2010, North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46. It also shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people, and unveiled a uranium-enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist.
One reason both sides seem more willing to talk now is heavy pressure from the United States and China, said Kim Keun-sik, a political science professor at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
“The biggest change is the U.S. and China. After the Yeonpyeong shelling, they both feared a higher possibility of war,” he said. “So it’s not like North Korea and South Korea want to talk. That hasn’t changed. But they’re being pushed together on the table by China and the U.S.”
Staff writer Chico Harlan contributed to this report.