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S. Korea seeks bilateral nuclear talks with N. Korea at key ASEAN meeting

All Headlines 11:05 July 22, 2011

By Kim Deok-hyun

BALI, Indonesia, July 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's chief envoy to six-country talks on ending North Korea's nuclear program is moving to hold an informal meeting with his potential North Korean counterpart, possibly in an attempt to reopen the long-stalled talks, Seoul's diplomats here said Friday.

The South's chief negotiator Wi Sung-lac is proposing holding talks with Ri Yong-ho, a veteran North Korean diplomat who is widely expected to succeed Kim Kye-gwan as the North's top envoy to the multilateral talks, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) here, according to the diplomats.

Top diplomats of the six nations involved in the talks -- the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia -- convened on this Indonesian resort of Bali to attend the annual gathering for talks on security in Asia.

"We conveyed our proposal yesterday to the North Korean side to hold a meeting between Wi and Ri on the sidelines of the ARF," a ranking South Korean diplomat told Yonhap News Agency on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

"Our side believes that the ARF presented a good chance to hold a bilateral meeting with the North's side," the diplomat said.

North Korea has yet to respond to the South's offer, but "hectic diplomatic efforts" are under way here to arrange a meeting between Wi and Ri.

For South Korea, the presence of Ri, who was promoted to the North's vice foreign minister last year, at this year's ARF carries particular weight because he has been thought to succeed the North's top envoy Kim Kye-gwan after Kim was also promoted to first vice foreign minister.

The six-party nuclear disarmament talks have been stalled since late 2008 after North Korea stormed out of the process after a new round of U.N. sanctions.

It was unclear whether Kim, who served the North's top envoy for years, would still work in that capacity after his promotion, but South Korean officials see Ri as a de facto top negotiator to the six-party talks.

"We think Ri is virtually serving as the North's top envoy to the six-party talks," another South Korean diplomat said.

A meeting between Wi and Ri was aimed at paving the way for a higher-level meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and his North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun in Bali, the diplomats said.

Pak and Ri arrived in Bali on Thursday night, but they were tight-lipped when reporters asked about the possibility of a bilateral meeting with South Korea.

Expectations were rising among South Korean diplomats that North Korea may respond positively to the proposal. Until now, the North has refused to discuss its nuclear program one-on-one with South Korea as Pyongyang has so far used its nuclear weapons program as important leverage to improve ties with Washington.

South Korea, the U.S. and other six-party members are pushing to reopen the six-party nuclear dialogue forum in a three-step approach in which North Korea will meet South Korea first, then the U.S., for one-on-one talks on denuclearization,

On Thursday, South Korean foreign minister Kim held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and reaffirmed their joint stance on the step-by-step approach.

The South's top diplomat is due to hold talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday. Afterward, the foreign ministers of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan will hold a trilateral meeting, diplomats said.

Meanwhile, the South Korean foreign minister will meet top diplomats from the Asian and Western nations on Friday to coordinate preparations for the East Asia Summit leadership meeting to be held in November in Indonesia, officials said.


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