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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 79 (November 5, 2009)

All Headlines 10:50 November 05, 2009

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N.K., U.S. Agree to Hold Bilateral Meeting Before Six-party Talks

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Although it was not officially announced, North Korea and the United States have agreed to hold two rounds of bilateral talks before the socialist country returns to multilateral nuclear disarmament talks, a U.S. news report said.

The agreement was reached at last week's meetings in New York and San Diego between officials from the two countries, Foreign Policy magazine said on its Web site Nov. 2.

Foreign Policy, quoting an administration official, said "substantial progress" was made in talks between Sung Kim, the State Department's special envoy to six-party talks, and visiting North Korean official Ri Gun, director general of the North American affairs bureau of North Korea's foreign ministry. The two met on the sidelines of academic forums in San Diego and New York.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il recently agreed to return to the six-party talks pending the outcome of expected bilateral talks with the U.S. The North has extended an invitation to Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy.

Foreign Policy said Ri agreed that Bosworth would meet Kang Sok-ju, first-vice foreign minister, rather than chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan.

"Bosworth's visit would be seen as a failure unless some demonstrable progress was made and it is widely believed that only the top officials in Kim Jong-il's regime have real negotiating authority," the magazine said.

Foreign Policy magazine reported that Ri agreed to "have exactly two formal bilateral meetings with the United States before returning to a multilateral forum."

Ri, however, "demurred" on Sung Kim's demand that the North abide by the September 2005 six-party nuclear deal that calls for North Korea's denuclearization in return for a massive economic aid, diplomatic recognition and establishment of a permanent peace regime to replace the current fragile armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Ri Gun, the North's No. 2 nuclear negotiator, arrived in New York on Oct. 23 and met with the top U.S. envoy Sung Kim Oct. 25 before attending a forum in San Diego, California. Both Ri and Kim also attended the Northeast Asia Cooperative Dialogue held in San Diego last week and held unofficial meetings.

Ri said Oct. 30 in New York that he held a "useful dialogue" with American scholars, but did not give details. "I had a useful dialogue," Ri told reporters after emerging from a seminar organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society.

Ri said he attended seminars in San Diego and New York and met with Sung Kim on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, "at the U.S. request." But he was tight-lipped about addressing other questions, including whether and when Stephen Bosworth will visit Pyongyang.

Ri and Sung Kim held one-hour talks in New York on Oct. 31, where they apparently discussed conditions for Bosworth's trip to the North. Their meeting was the first government-level talks between the two sides since President Barack Obama took office early this year.

The results of the Ri-Kim meeting remain a secret, but a major Japanese daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun, reported that the two reached a "basic agreement" on Bosworth's visit to Pyongyang in late November. The U.S. State Department denied the report, saying there has been no formal agreement.

Ri was invited to the Northeast Asia Cooperative Dialogue (NEACD) at the University of California, San Diego from Oct. 26-27, and also a seminar in New York hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society on Oct. 30.

On Nov. 2, the North's foreign ministry played down the first official contact between the two sides. "The contact was not a preliminary meeting for talks between North Korea and the United States. So there was no discussion on substantial issues related to North Korea-U.S. dialogue," a ministry spokesman said. But U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Ri and Kim had a "very useful discussion."

Ri headed home Nov. 2 after winding up his U.S. trip. He arrived in Beijing Nov. 3 via Tokyo from New York. He is likely to fly back to Pyongyang on Nov. 5 or Nov. 7.

Meanwhile, South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Wi Sung-Lac, said separately the U.S. is expected to decide soon whether and when to hold the bilateral dialogue. "It has been a long time since North Korea has invited the U.S. (for bilateral talks). It is time for the U.S. to set its position," Wi said Nov. 4 in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"What I was said most recently is that the U.S. will soon make a decision, but I don't know about the results yet," said Wi, who also serves as special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs.

The U.S. declared earlier its willingness to engage the North bilaterally, but it has been cautious about the timing and agenda.

Wi said that although the North's latest announcement of its nuclear activity was not unexpected, it would not help Pyongyang's pursuit of one-on-one talks with Washington.

The Seoul official plans to visit Washington later this week to get updates on the U.S. position following last week's meetings.

Seoul's No. 2 nuclear negotiator, Hwang Joon-kook, left for Washington Nov. 4 to prepare for Wi's trip. Wi is expected to depart on Nov. 5, and South Korean officials are likely to travel to Tokyo on their way back to discuss the nuclear issue with their counterparts there.

North Korea has often demanded that its nuclear program be handled in the context of global nuclear disarmament and insisted that the U.S. back down from its "hostile" policy.

The North quit the six-party talks in April after the United Nations censured its long-range rocket launch. It vowed at the time to restart the nuclear program that it had shut down under six-party pacts. It conducted an atomic weapons test in May, its second since 2006.

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