North Korean and U.S. officials hold two-day meeting

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North Korean and U.S. officials hold two-day meeting

North Korean top-ranking officials held two-day unofficial talks with former U.S. officials in Malaysia on Friday and Saturday, raising questions over the nature of the meeting and possibility of further dialogue between the two countries.

North Korean foreign vice minister, Han Song-ryol, who previously served as deputy ambassador to the United Nations, was among the five North Korean officials involved in the meeting with four U.S. former officials. Jang Il-hun, Pyongyang’s current deputy ambassador to the United Nations, also took part.

Among the participants, who gathered at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, was Robert Gallucci, who was part of a U.S. negotiation team in 1994 that reached a landmark deal with Pyongyang on freezing its nuclear weapons program in return for economic incentives. Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. deputy envoy for the long-stalled six party talks aimed at dissuading the North from its nuclear weapons program, and Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, were also there.

While details of the two-day meeting remain unknown, Sigal told reporters there that the North Korean team demanded the two sides begin talks for a “peace treaty” that would establish diplomatic relations between the two.

It is reported that the North stressed that peace talks should precede moving on to address its nuclear and missile program, repeating its longstanding position that it will only agree to discuss denuclearization after setting up diplomatic relations with Washington, which it sees as a guarantee for regime survival.

Sigal told reporters that his team reiterated the U.S. position that the scrapping of the nuclear program must come before any other issues, but he indicated that the two sides sought ways to resume dialogue that has been closed for years under the Obama administration’s so-called “Strategic Patience” policy, whereby Washington has decided to wait until Pyongyang drops its nuclear ambitions before holding official talks. Sigal also said the talk “gives us a chance to explore things that you know go beyond what the government is saying right now to see if we can find a way back to negotiations.”

The two-day talk came just a day after the North test-fired yet another medium-range missile, which ended in failure as it exploded right after launch, according to the South Korean military.

But Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily the North’s informal encounter with the U.S. could have come across as “disconcerting news” for the South Korean government as it has been leading international efforts to bring tougher sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime in the wake of its fifth nuclear test.

“It appears that the North sat down with the assumption that Hillary Clinton will win the election next month and the Democratic government will maintain power,” said Koh, pointing out former U.S. officials who took part in the talk were affiliated with the Democratic Party and are considered to be “dovish.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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