Nuclear envoys from the two Koreas plan to meet for talks in Beijing next week, South Korean officials said Friday in the latest sign of diplomatic wrangling aimed at restarting long-stalled nuclear negotiations.
Seoul will send Wi Sung-lac to meet with North Korea's Ri Yong Ho, a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official said, declining to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.
After months of standoff, the Korean envoys to stalled international talks aimed at ridding the North of nuclear weapons held a surprise meeting in July on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Indonesia. That meeting raised hopes that the talks, on hold since December 2008, could restart soon, but there has been little progress since.
China didn't confirm that a meeting between the Koreans would take place, but it is holding a conference early next week that could provide a reason for the nuclear envoys to get together. China is the North's top diplomatic and economic supporter and has long pressed for the resumption of nuclear negotiations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China will host an international symposium to commemorate the sixth anniversary of what was seen at the time as a landmark 2005 nuclear agreement in the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
Representatives from all six participating nations will take part, including Chinese lead negotiator Wu Dawei, Jiang said, but it wasn't immediately clear whether other nations would send their nuclear envoys or lower-level officials.
The South Korean official would only say that the Korean envoys' meeting would take place "in the middle of next week" and would be a chance for North Korea to "reaffirm its determination" to dismantle its nuclear arms programs. He described the meeting as a "follow-up" to the talks in Indonesia.
Another official said that Wednesday is the likeliest date for the meeting. Both officials said the agenda has not been set yet.
Washington and Seoul have been wary of the North's repeated calls for international nuclear talks, calling first for an improvement in dismal ties between the Koreas and for a sincere sign from the North that it will abide by past commitments it has made in previous rounds of the nuclear talks.
There has also been worry about North Korea's recently revealed uranium enrichment program, which could give it another way to make atomic bombs.
One of the South Korean officials said Seoul and Washington remain unchanged in their position that Pyongyang should show it is taking steps toward nuclear dismantlement before the six-nation disarmament talks can resume. The talks also include Russia, Japan and China.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made a weeklong trip to Russia and China last month. In a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev in Russia, Kim reportedly suggested the North could be open to halting nuclear production and testing if the six-party talks resume.
The North also promised to freeze its long-range missile tests in 1999, but has since routinely tested short-range missiles, and it launched a long-range rocket in April 2009. It has also conducted two nuclear tests, most recently in 2009, and last year it shelled a South Korean front-line island, killing four, and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46.
Relations between the Koreas deteriorated after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008 and tied aid to progress in North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
But animosity has been easing recently. Seoul allowed a group of religious leaders and a prominent orchestra conductor to visit North Korea earlier this month. Another religious delegation is now pushing for a trip to the North.
The heads of both Koreas' state gas companies are also in Moscow, meeting separately with Russian officials to discuss putting a pipeline through the Korean peninsula. The North would earn money by allowing the pipeline to run through its territory, while the South could reduce the cost of importing gas from Russia.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.