SEOUL (Reuters) – Leader Kim Jong-il has agreed North Korea will join a first round of six-party working level talks on his nuclear programmes on May 12 after a visit to China this month, media and officials say.
The lower-level talks to focus on detail rather than strategy would be the first concrete result of two rounds of high-level talks involving China, Russia, the two Koreas, the United States and Japan in Beijing in the past year on North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
The breakthrough came when the reclusive Kim made a rare visit to Beijing this month and met Chinese President Hu Jintao to set the May 12 date, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said.
Kim’s trip came just days after a visit to Beijing by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who brought more evidence of North Korea’s efforts to develop a nuclear force.
“There is no period set, there are no specific topics fixed,” South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck told reporters on Thursday.
The nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002 when U.S. officials say communist North Korea disclosed it was working on a secret programme to enrich uranium for weapons, in violation of an international agreement.
North Korea said it expected to discuss a reward for freezing its nuclear plans but any breakthrough depended on Washington.
“The DPRK side will attend this meeting to discuss the proposal ‘reward for freeze’,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency. DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The proposal involves the North freezing nuclear plans in return for compensation.
The two protagonists to the talks are at odds on many issues, including how to proceed on a U.S. offer to provide security assurances if North Korea agrees to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear arms programmes.
“Everything will depend on the U.S. attitude,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said. “The U.S. attempt to while away time, insisting on its wrong assertion, would not do it good, either. The DPRK is by no means impatient.”
China, host of the six-party talks, and Russia said they hoped the working-group meeting would be a success.
“We hope all parties can make efforts to make the meeting work,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a news conference in Beijing, confirming the May 12 date.
South Korea’s Lee suggested only one working group meeting in Beijing was likely before the next round of six-way talks.
“As far as I know if North Korea wanted to have talks just once then there will be talks only once,” he said.
The talks were expected to last about five days, Kyodo said.
The United States recently notified China it had accepted a May 12 date for the inaugural working group meeting, Kyodo said.
Discussion was likely to focus on the U.S. demand for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling, Lee said.
North Korea said that was unacceptable, but has in the past used tough words to boost its position before making a compromise.
“If the U.S. insists on this stand, the DPRK does not feel any need to sit at the negotiating table with it,” the Foreign Ministry said.
One analyst said North Korea may soon cease its denials of a programme to enrich uranium to weapons grade, enabling progress.
“I believe North Korea will admit it has a uranium enrichment programme during the upcoming working-level talks or a third round of the six-party talks,” said Hajime Izumi, Korea expert at Shizuoka Prefectural University near Tokyo.
The six parties have held two rounds of senior-level talks on the North’s nuclear programmes, the first in August 2003 and the latest in February this year. They made little progress on how North Korea’s nuclear programmes might be dismantled and its energy and security concerns addressed.
In the February talks in Beijing, the six agreed to meet again before mid-year and to start working-level talks before that to discuss the dispute. No progress had been reported since.
U.S. officials said on Wednesday Washington was working on a new intelligence estimate that is expected to find North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes more threatening than previously thought.
Asked about such a report, South Korea’s Lee said: “When we asked the U.S. government about this report they explained that this report was groundless.”
North Korea said last year it had restarted a frozen nuclear reactor and completed making weapons-grade plutonium from fuel extracted from the plant.
Pyongyang has reversed its reported admission to the United States that it had the uranium-based programme.