Two Koreas meet to discuss nuclear issue

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 22, 2011 3:38 AM
Two Koreas meet to discuss nuclear issue

By Jack Kim and Andrew Quinn

SEOUL/NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - The nuclear envoys of South and North Korea met on the sidelines of an Asian forum in Bali on Friday, an official in Seoul said, in the first high level contact since tensions spiked on the Korean peninsula last year.

"The meeting started at around 3pm local time," a South Korean foreign ministry official told Reuters, without providing further details.

Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's nuclear envoy, and Ri Yong-ho, North Korea's vice foreign minister who handles nuclear diplomacy, were meeting for unofficial talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting.

The South's Yonhap news agency said they were discussing a wide range of nuclear disarmament issues.

It quoted a South Korean diplomat as saying that the South had conveyed its proposal for talks to North Korea on Thursday but had yet to receive a reply. The agency said "hectic diplomatic efforts" were under way to arrange a meeting between the two envoys.

The meeting marks the first high-level contact between the two Koreas since the last round of the six-way nuclear disarmament talks in 2008 and a step forward in the diplomatic effort to resume negotiations.

South Korea, the United States and China, which hosts the six-way forum, have agreed on a three-stage process for envoys from Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington to meet first before the negotiations can resume.

North Korea walked away from the six-way nuclear talks more than two years ago, but last year called for their resumption.

A U.S. official in Bali who did want to be quoted by name said earlier it was the "most consequential" meeting between the two sides in some time.

"It will take some time to understand and fully digest what has gone on between the North and South."

Japan said renewed talks were important for the region.

"North Korea remains a clear and serious threat to the international community. But we consider the 6-party talks as a useful method to put pressure on North Korea," Satoru Satoh, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting in Bali on Thursday evening.

"Japan has said that North Korea and South Korea need to start talking, so we are looking to South Korea first."

Tensions rose to the highest level in years when a South Korean navy ship was sunk last year in a torpedo attack killing 46 sailors. South Korea blamed the North, but Pyongyang denied any role. The North shelled a South Korean island in November.

South Korea has also demanded some expression of regret from Pyongyang about the attacks as indication that the North is serious about reducing tensions and working to bring stability to the Korean peninsula.

North Korea's two nuclear tests in the past five years rattled the region. They triggered international sanctions against Pyongyang believed to be squeezing its already troubled economy by cutting off a lucrative arms trade.

(Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Ron Popeski and David Chance)