Nuclear envoys of the rival Koreas both addressed a closed-door conference on security in Northeast Asia on Thursday, but there was no word on whether they spoke to each other.
The two-day, academic forum in New York is an opportunity to break the ice between North Korea and South Korea, which in turn could nudge forward efforts to restart long-stalled, six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear program.
However, while Pyongyang is striving to improve ties with the US, which it sees as important for securing aid and moving toward its ultimate goal of normalized relations, there’s no sign it wants to do the same with Seoul. Tensions remain high on the divided Korean Peninsula.
The US and South Korea staged military exercises in recent days and in apparent response, North Korea held its own drills and called for a “sacred war” against the South. Two military attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 people nearly triggered a war.
North Korea’s representative to the six-nation disarmament talks, Ri Yong-ho, and his South Korean counterpart, Lim Sung-nam, are among several dozen participants of the conference at a hotel near the UN headquarters. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former US deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg have also taken part, but no currently serving US government officials.
Organizers barred media from the discussions.
Such informal “track 2” talks offer a chance for policymakers and experts to exchange views outside the more constrained atmosphere of formal negotiations. This gathering has attracted extra scrutiny, coming a week after North Korea agreed to a freeze in nuclear activities and to allow in UN inspectors in return for US food aid.
Another “track 2” meeting organized by a different group is scheduled for today.
In Beijing on Thursday, the US and North Korea held more talks to finalize the 217,700 tonnes of aid, the first such assistance Washington has offered Pyongyang in three years. US envoy on North Korean human rights issues Robert King said administrative issues on deliveries of the aid have been resolved, though details still remain to be settled.
The US-North Korean accord is the most substantive sign of warming ties since the North pulled out of the six-party talks in 2009 and ramped up its nuclear and missile programs. The accord was announced little more than two months after the death of longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Dec. 17 last year, succeeded by his untested youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
The US is now watching to see Pyongyang makes good on its commitments to freeze uranium enrichment and allow in UN nuclear inspectors. Washington also says that there will not be a fundamental change in US-North Korean relations unless inter-Korean ties improve.
The US retains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War that ended without a formal peace treaty.
South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan was also in New York on Thursday and met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but did not attend the security conference.
Kim Sung-hwan was scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington yesterday.
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