Nuclear envoys engaged in a flurry of shuttle diplomacy yesterday, cobbling together a united strategy for upcoming talks aimed at convincing North Korea to drop its atomic weapons program.
Six-party talks -- involving the US, Japan, China, Russia and both Koreas -- stalled a year ago when North Korea boycotted them over sanctions imposed by the US for alleged illegal activities by its communist government, including the counterfeiting and laundering of money.
"No one -- China, nor Russia nor any of the three of us -- has any intention of accepting North Korea as a nuclear state. I think we've all made that very clear," US envoy Christopher Hill said after meeting for two hours with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
The issue is threatening to overshadow the economic issues that are supposed to be the focus of this week's annual 21-nation APEC summit.
Citing an unidentified diplomatic source in Hanoi, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that APEC foreign ministers would hold an unofficial meeting tomorrow to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which took on added urgency when the North carried out its first underground test on Oct. 9.
Even South Korea, whose approach of engagement with the North has sometimes conflicted with the harder stance favored by the US and Japan, is sounding tougher.
"We cannot afford to fail this time," said Chun Yung-woo, Seoul's nuclear envoy, in some of his strongest comments on the issue. "If we do not make substantial progress, the future for the six-party talks will be very unclear. There should not be talks for the sake of talks."
It will be crucial for negotiators to reach as much consensus as possible before they sit down with the North Koreans, who are expected to seek major concessions. Chun said on Tuesday that the North shouldn't expect any reward just for returning to the negotiating table.
Hill and Chun were on the same flight from Seoul on Tuesday night, then met for breakfast yesterday. Afterward, they met with Japanese nuclear envoy Kenichiro Sasae for the first time since the North agreed earlier this month to return to the six-party nuclear negotiations. Chun and Sasae were to meet later in the day.
"We had some in-depth, substantive discussions on what outcome we should try to achieve in the next round of the six-party talks," Hill said.
Chun reported that no new proposals had been made at the meeting.
"We just focused on what substantive outcome we should achieve to keep the process going," he said, adding that several dates were suggested for the talks to resume next month in Beijing, and that officials would present them to China to see which works best.
"We are very disappointed that [North Korea] stayed away from the talks for about a year now," Hill told reporters. "We all feel that the process really needs to show progress."