By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
TOKYO, May 16 -- South Korea resumed high-level diplomatic talks on Monday with North Korea and said it had made a new proposal for jump-starting stalled international negotiations to dismantle the North's nuclear weapons program.
South Korean officials refused to provide details, but the offer marked another attempt by the Seoul government to position itself as a mediator in the nuclear crisis with North Korea that has raised tensions across East Asia. During the last round of six-nation disarmament talks 11 months ago, South Korea floated an unsuccessful proposal involving aid and security guarantees to the North. Officials in Seoul on Monday suggested that the new offer may be more attractive than the previous one.
South Korea has been pressing the Bush administration to be more flexible in negotiations with North Korea. The North Korean government has refused to return to the six-party talks, protesting what it calls a "hostile policy" toward the country by the United States. China, Russia and Japan are also involved in the talks.
"We told the North Korean side that if it comes out to the dialogue table, we'll make important proposals for practical gains in talks aimed at resolving the nuclear issue," Rhee Bong Jo, the chief South Korean delegate, said after meeting with officials in the North Korean city of Kaesong. South Korean companies have invested millions in the city and are employing 2,000 North Korean workers at new factories just north of the heavily fortified border that has separated the countries since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The talks Monday, the first between the two Koreas since July, highlighted the different approaches employed by South Korea and the United States in dealing with North Korea.
South Korea, like China and Russia, has pursued economic and diplomatic engagement with the Pyongyang government. The United States has taken a hard line, seeking to isolate North Korea, and has opposed policies that would offer incentives to North Korea to disarm.
In January, North Korea asked South Korea for 500,000 tons of desperately needed fertilizer, a request made through the Red Cross. The Seoul government had held back on granting the aid, because North Korea refused to resume bilateral talks. Rhee said South Korea might now provide 200,000 tons of free fertilizer -- an offer some analysts saw as a possible sweetener for Pyongyang to return to broader disarmament talks.
The Bush administration has rejected such diplomatic and economic incentives, saying the North Koreans are engaging in nuclear blackmail.
Tensions over North Korea's nuclear plans rose more than two years ago, when North Korea expelled international weapons inspectors and began reprocessing spent fuel rods into nuclear material. Concern has increased further since February, when North Korea declared itself a nuclear power and vowed to stay away from the six-party talks.
The stakes are particularly high now because U.S. intelligence officials have detected some activity that may indicate North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test.
The South Korean government has changed its policy in recent years, embracing North Korea, its longtime Cold War enemy, in a policy of detente. South Korea and China are considered to have the most influence in dealing with the unpredictable government of Kim Jong Il. The resumption of the bilateral talks brought some hope that South Korea -- now North Korea's second-largest trading partner after China -- may be able to persuade North Korea to return to the talks.
South Korea's Yonhap news service reported that Seoul on Monday proposed holding a cabinet-level meeting with North Korea in June as well as reuniting another group of Korean families separated by the Korean War.
South Korea also proposed holding joint ceremonies to mark the opening of two recently completed cross-border roadways, as well as a trial run on two border rail lines that were completed a year ago, Rhee was quoted as telling South Korean reporters.
North Korea did not immediately respond to those proposals but did accept an offer by South Korea to send a government delegation to ceremonies in Pyongyang to mark the fifth anniversary of a historic Korean summit in June 2000, which was attended by Kim Jong Il and the South Korean president at the time, Kim Dae Jung. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, who was visiting Seoul, expressed hopes that the North-South talks would result in the North Koreans coming back to the table.
"I'm sure and I'm confident that this is a good move between South and North," Ban told Hill in the presence of reporters.
Hill, who is the Bush administration's point person on North Korea, said it was too early to tell whether the North-South talks would bring Pyongyang back to the table.
"We are looking forward to getting a report," Hill told reporters. "Of course if it can help the six-party process, it will be very good. But we just don't know."