SEOUL — South Korea on Monday played down North Korea’s apparent interest in a new round of disarmament talks, with its foreign minister saying such dialogue would be worthwhile only if Pyongyang first showed “sincere” intent to denuclearize.
“I don’t think it will be easy for them to do that,” the minister, Yun Byung-se, said during his first press briefing since he took the job in March.
The South’s skepticism about the talks, shared by the United States, underscores the major stumbling blocks still facing any effort to reboot the six-party talks — the multinational process aimed at coaxing North Korea’s disarmament.
China last week tried to revive hopes for those talks during a visit to Beijing by a personal envoy of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. The envoy, Choe Ryong Hae, faced pressure from Chinese officials to resume talks, and was quoted by Chinese state media as saying the North was “willing to accept the suggestion.”
That sentiment, though, was never mentioned in the North’s state-media coverage of the visit.
The six-party talks — involving the United States, Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas — have been on hold for more than four years. China remains the strongest backer of the talks, but many analysts say the process has been dormant for good reason: Their very aim — denuclearization — is something the North says will never be achieved.
Previous sessions helped the North secure energy assistance and food aid in exchange for disarmament pledges, soon neglected. Since the talks first began in 2003, the North has tested three underground nuclear weapons, built at least one new uranium enrichment facility and declared nuclear technology a fundamental state goal, along with economic development.
“Up until now, North Korea has shown a lot of provocations,” Yun said. “I think the six parties, as well as the international community, cannot act as if nothing has happened. We can’t go back to business as unusual.”
The meeting last week between Choe and Chinese President Xi Jinping came as the North edged away from weeks of tension-raising threats. But policymakers now face the fresh challenge of engaging North Korea’s leaders without getting embarrassed by them.
Over the last several years, U.S. and South Korean officials have called on the North to show substantive signs of denuclearization as a prerequisite to any dialogue. The North, for instance, could allow international nuclear inspectors back into the country or dismantle its facilities. Even a statement of interest in denuclearization would be a “very meaningful” first step, Yun said Monday.
Some pro-engagement analysts have pressed the United States and others in the region to consider a less ambitious dialogue goal — managing the North Korean nuclear arsenal, for instance, rather than eliminating it. But the Obama administration has not publicly discussed changing its tack. At a March Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on North Korea policy, Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy to Pyongyang, said that denuclearization is “still the goal of U.S. policy.”
During his meeting with Choe, Xi said that “all the parties involved should stick to the objective of denuclearization.”
Analysts say Pyongyang could be expressing interest in six-party talks as a way to smooth relations with China, which recently backed a new round of U.N. sanctions against the North. A Chinese state-run bank this month also cut off dealings with North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.
China could be pushing for a resumption of the talks as a means “of very temporary face-saving,” showing it is acting responsibly to calm the North, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. But the North’s officials, Lim added, “cannot abandon their strategy of nuclear weapons. If they give up that strategy, the Kim Jong Un regime will be in big trouble.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.