Sinking scuppered North-U.S. bilateral

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Sinking scuppered North-U.S. bilateral

The United States and North Korea had agreed to hold bilateral talks to help restart six-party denuclearization discussions in March, but the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26 derailed the plan, a diplomatic source said yesterday.

The source also said the U.S. was planning to issue a U.S. visa to Kim Gye-gwan, the chief nuclear negotiator for North Korea, until the Cheonan incident occurred.

According to the source, North Korea in March told the United States that a bilateral Washington-Pyongyang meeting would pave the way to the resumption of the six-party talks, which were last held in December 2008. Previously, the North had demanded as preconditions the lifting of economic sanctions and the signing of a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

The U.S. had previously said the North would have to take steps toward denuclearization before getting a bilateral meeting. The diplomatic source said the U.S. softened its stance and “had essentially agreed to have bilateral talks.”

“The U.S. government was working to issue the visa for Kim Gye-gwan around late March or early April,” the source said. “But when the Cheonan went down on March 26, everything was put on hold.

“Early on, with no clear-cut cause of the sinking, the U.S. was monitoring the situation and hadn’t entirely written off the possibility of a bilateral meeting,” the source continued. “But as North Korea emerged as the prime suspect, Washington sided with Seoul by stressing that the Cheonan probe must come before the six-party talks.”

The source explained that Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, and Sung Kim, the chief U.S. negotiator for the nuclear talks, were “disappointed” that the bilateral meeting with Pyongyang never happened. But they were not averse to placing the Cheonan investigation ahead of the six-party talks, the source said.

A second source said China actively mediated between North Korea and the U.S. and that “every member of the talks was certain that there was definite momentum for the resumption of the six-party talks.”

“But when the Cheonan sank, it took down any hopes for the talks with it,” the source said.

The second source speculated that the hawkish military faction in North Korea might have attacked the Cheonan in an attempt to overpower a rival faction that was more willing to negotiate to return to the nuclear table.

“North Korea will continue to be at odds with South Korea and the United States after the Cheonan,” the source said. “It’s highly unlikely the six-party talks will take place this year.”


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

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