Disaster sets back six-party talks

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Disaster sets back six-party talks

The sinking of the Cheonan may have taken with it any chance for a swift return to the six-party talks, as government officials say a meeting between the United States and North Korea is unlikely while the cause of the catastrophe remains undetermined.

Military and civilian experts are still trying to ascertain what brought down the South Korean Navy corvette on the night of March 26. Several possibilities have been floated, among them North Korean involvement, either via torpedo attack or previously planted sea mines.

And diplomatic sources said before the probe is complete and North Korea is cleared of suspicion, it will be difficult for the United States to engage the North in a bilateral meeting. The North has long demanded an exclusive dialogue with Washington as a precondition to its return to the six-party table. The last denuclearization discussion was held in December 2008.

“I believe the United States knows it needs to postpone [a U.S.-North Korea meeting] even before we ask them to consider it,” said a high-ranking government official in Seoul. “In any case, the United States doesn’t think the North is intent on returning to the six-party talks and is thus not ready to accept the North’s demand for a bilateral talk. We’re in for a feeling-out period.”

A Foreign Ministry official added: “North Korea continues to refuse to return to the six-party setting. At this juncture, it’s difficult to imagine Washington would sit down one-on-one with Pyongyang before the cause of the Cheonan sinking is determined.”

Talks were stalled even before the disaster. The North wants international sanctions lifted before it sits down to the table, while the United States wants the North’s pledge to return to the multilateral negotiations.

“As far as I know, North Korea has yet to present a date for its return to the six-party talks,” the Foreign Ministry source said. “And the United States hasn’t changed. That’s why there’s been no major progress.”

If North Korea was involved in the Cheonan’s sinking, the situation could get even more complicated.

“In such a case, we would have some very complex pictures involving inter-Korean relations, the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and even U.S.-China relations,” a second Foreign Ministry official said. “Depending on what the cause was, restarting the six-party talks could prove to be difficult.”

Kim Jong-il’s anticipated visit to China was expected to provide a breakthrough in efforts to restart the six-party talks. In March, the North Korean leader was rumored to be ready to start within weeks, but he has yet to make the trip.

So far this year, nuclear envoys from the six nations have met on several occasions to discuss ways to bring the North back to the table.

The North is said to be feeling the effects of the sanctions imposed after its nuclear test last May, which were exacerbated by the failed currency reform last fall.

It has called for the lifting of sanctions and negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 before it returns to the nuclear table. The United States and South Korea, in particular, have rejected these demands. They also argue it won’t be enough for North Korea simply to return to the talks, but will need to take strong steps toward denuclearization.

By Kang Chan-ho, Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]
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