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(3rd LD) U.S. welcomes Koreas' agreement to resume talks: White House

All Headlines 09:11 January 21, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks by Crowley, Klingner, other details throughout; CHANGES headline)
By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20 (Yonhap) -- The United States Thursday welcomed North Korea's proposal for high-level inter-Korean military dialogue to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the North's shelling of a front-line island and torpedoing of a South Korean warship last year.

"I think following that, the Republic of Korea agreeing to enter talks with the North Koreans -- clearly, conditions were created yesterday that showed the Republic of Korea that China and the United States were aligned in dealing with the aggressions of the North Koreans," Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, said. "I think that is an important step forward."

North Korea proposed earlier in the day that the two Koreas hold a meeting of working-level officials to prepare for a meeting of defense ministers to discuss the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan. Fifty people died in the attacks, including two civilians.

South Korean officials have said they are willing to meet with North Korean officials on the North Korean provocations, adding they will also propose a separate meeting to gauge North Korea's sincerity regarding denuclearization.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao said at a joint press conference Wednesday at the White House that they "agreed that North Korea must avoid further provocations" and that "the paramount goal must be complete denuclearization of the peninsula."

Obama and Hu also "expressed concern" over North Korea's "claimed uranium enrichment program" and "emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step."

"I think some of that comes as a result of yesterday's meeting here, that for the first time there was an acknowledgment by the Chinese about the North Koreans' enrichment program," Gibbs said, adding the Chinese acknowledgment of the North Korean uranium enrichment program has made South Korea "confident enough to go into talks with the North Koreans."

China has been reluctant to acknowledge the existence of a uranium program in North Korea, citing a lack of first-hand information, although North Korea showed a U.S. nuclear scientist an enrichment plant in November. The plant could serve as a second way of building nuclear bombs in addition to its existing plutonium program, but Pyongyang insists the facility is producing fuel for power generation.

Beijing, which has veto power in the U.N. Security Council, greatly diluted a council statement on the Cheonan's sinking -- blamed on North Korea by an international investigation team -- and has not yet denounced Pyongyang for the sinking and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong.

Seoul and Washington had insisted that Pyongyang apologize for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan and take concrete denuclearization steps before any resumption of bilateral or multilateral talks.

China, the North's staunchest communist ally, has called for an early resumption of six-party talks without any conditions attached.

Philip Crowley, State Department spokesman, repeated Washington's position.

"Clearly we welcome dialogue between North Korea and South Korea," he said. "We support inter-Korean dialogue, but these are decisions first and foremost for North and South Korea to make."

Washington will not talk for talks' sake, Crowley said.

"We underscore that it is important for North Korea to take meaningful steps to improve inter-Korean relations," he said. "We're looking for clear signs that North Korea will seriously meet its obligations and demonstrates that it's prepared to have constructive dialogue. We don't want to call a resumption of the six-party process until we are confident that those kinds of discussions will be productive."

The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear dismantlement have been deadlocked for more than two years over the North's nuclear and missile tests and other provocations.

The six-party deal, signed in 2005 by the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, calls for the North's nuclear dismantlement in return for massive economic aid and diplomatic and political benefits.

James Steinberg, U.S. deputy secretary of state, will travel to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo next week to follow up on Obama's meeting with Hu, Crowley said.

Steinberg will be in Seoul Wednesday, Tokyo Thursday and Beijing Friday to "exchange views with senior officials on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues, including regional security and recent developments on the Korean Peninsula," he said.

Despite the flurry of high-profile diplomacy to defuse tensions over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and other provocations, Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is still pessimistic.

"The joint statement papered over policy differences with blandly worded agreements," Klingner said. "The statement that the two sides called for the necessary steps that would allow for early resumption of the six-party talks process will be interpreted very differently by China and the U.S. Beijing will claim that Washington agreed to return to the nuclear negotiations in the near term, most likely by abandoning its preconditions. Washington, on the other hand, will underscore that the necessary steps refer to Pyongyang fulfilling Washington's preconditions before six-party talks can be reconvened."


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