North Korea made a conciliatory gesture towards the US yesterday, agreeing after a six-year hiatus to resume talks on recovering the remains of US servicemen killed during the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
The move followed a high-level meeting between US and North Korean officials in New York last month that prompted a flurry of diplomatic efforts to resume stalled six-party disarmament talks.
The North has previously used the issue of US soldiers killed during the war to try to entice the US into two-way talks on improving relations.
However, Washington rebuffed Pyongyang’s earlier offers to reopen talks on the remains, saying the North must first return to six--nation talks on nuclear disarmament.
The US Department of Defense says 8,031 US servicemen are still unaccounted for following the war, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Joint US-North Korean search teams, in 33 missions from 1996 to 2005, recovered what were likely to be the remains of 229 of them. About 80 have been identified and returned to families for burial.
However, cooperation ended in 2005 when Washington voiced concerns for the safety of its personnel as relations worsened over the North’s nuclear program.
North Korea reportedly earned millions of dollars for cooperating over the recovery of remains, and its decision to resume discussions comes after Washington offered emergency aid to the flood-hit country.
The US Agency for International Development will contribute up to US$900,000 in emergency relief supplies to North Korea through non-governmental groups, the State Department said.
The US has for months been withholding a decision on sending food aid to North Korea until Pyongyang tackles US concerns over whether the supplies will indeed be distributed to the needy.
North Korea has requested overseas food and in May invited a US envoy to assess its needs.
Last week North Korea said it would consider holding talks on temporary reunions between Korean--Americans and their relatives living in the North.
“A series of such goodwill gestures will help keep the momentum for dialogue between North Korea and the United States,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
However, he cautioned that there was a long way to go before the six-party talks can resume.
“The US and South Korea share the stance that the North must stop its uranium enrichment program before the talks can resume,” Yang said.
North Korea disclosed in November last year that it was operating a uranium enrichment plant, further sullying the atmosphere over any resumption of international dialogue.
Pyongyang says that its new operation is intended to fuel a nuclear power plant, but US officials fear it could easily be reconfigured to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-hyun said Seoul would be under pressure to soften its stance toward Pyongyang.