Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Roh optimistic about more talks

MOVING FORWARD The South Korean president was inspecting troops at a military parade and was full of hope for a second round of dialogue with the North


South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, sidestepping North Korean scepticism, told his armed forces yesterday he expects a second round of talks on the North's nuclear ambitions to be held and to produce good results.

In Tokyo, US envoy James Kelly said those follow-on talks to August's inconclusive first six-way meeting in Beijing could possibly be in November, although no date had been fixed.

Roh indicated the timetable and agenda could be hardening up after intense diplomacy at the UN and elsewhere on ways to resolve the crisis over North Korea's declared nuclear weapons program -- a crisis that began a year ago this month.

"I expect that the second round of talks will be held in due time and will produce good results," Roh told a military parade at Sungnam airbase outside Seoul.

He also said a decision on whether to send troops to Iraq, as Washington has asked, hinged in part on security on the divided Korean Peninsula, where 37,000 US troops help the 690,000-strong South Korean forces deter the communist North.

"The utmost task now is to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem peacefully," Roh said after reviewing the parade from an open-top limousine. "Without unshakeable security, how can any companies in the world be expected to invest in [South] Korea?"

North Korea said on Tuesday it had not promised to attend more talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US. The careful wording left open the possibility Pyongyang would show up but made clear it doubted the merits.

Further reinforcing the view among diplomats that movement could come soon, a South Korean newspaper reported a North Korean negotiator as saying expressions of disinterest in fresh talks did not mean Pyongyang would reject them.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan told a briefing in Seoul the US was working hard to find ways to ease North Korea's security concerns.

"I don't interpret any such comments [by North Korea] as meaning they will not accept a second round of talks," he said.

In Tokyo, Kelly, who is assistant secretary of state and Washington's pointman on North Korea, said the US and its allies were urging Pyongyang to return to the table soon.

He was holding talks with South Korean and Japanese officials.

Asked if talks might be held in November, he said: "It's a possibility."

South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Seoul's ambassador to the US, Han Seung-joo, as telling South Korean lawmakers in Washington that he hoped the next talks would take place this month or no later than next month.

At Sungnam airbase outside Seoul, South Korea put on a long parade to mark the 55th anniversary of the armed forces, with aerobatics displays, frogmen dangling from helicopters, armored vehicles trundling past and taekwondo-trained troops smashing tiles.

Roh said defense spending was set to rise 8.1 percent next year, compared with 2.1 percent for the overall budget, but the amount was still insufficient.

Roh said that, as the economy recovered from its first recession in five years, more would be invested.

He said the country should become self-reliant in defense within 10 years.

North Korea has 1.1 million troops, many forward deployed near the Demilitarized Zone bisecting the peninsula.

Self-reliance would not diminish the importance of South Korea's alliance with the US but better reflect Seoul's increased international status as one of the world's strongest economies, Roh said.

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