x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

US-North Korea hold talks for first time since Kim Jong-un took power

Negotiations to resume today, with US looking for signs the new leader is ready to stop the country's nuclear programme and return to six-party talks.

BEIJING // US and North Korean negotiators meet today for the first time since Kim Jong-un took power in the communist country after his father's death.

The US is looking for signs the new leader is ready to stop the country's nuclear programme and return to international negotiations, known as the six-party talks, analysts say.

The bilateral discussions in the Chinese capital come two months after the death of Mr Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, under whom North Korea held nuclear tests, sank a South Korean warship, began a uranium-enrichment programme and in 2010 attacked South Korean territory for the first time in decades.

But because his son has recently taken over, he must shore up his position in an administration dominated by elderly conservatives.

Therefore, no one expects North Korea to make concessions in the meeting with US officials that would allow the six-party talks to resume.

The talks, on hold since Pyongyang pulled out in 2009, involve both Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and China,

"It's a simple test for the United States to see whether or not the North Korean leadership has the willpower to take a more positive posture on its nuclear-weapons programme," said Park Young-ho, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Reunification in Seoul.

"I don't think there will be any significant breakthrough. It's too early to expect the new leadership in Pyongyang will take a more flexible posture towards the West and South Korea."

Today's discussions, to be led on the North Korean side by Kim Kye-gwan and for the US by Glyn Davies, the special envoy for North Korea, follow fruitless bilateral talks in New York in July and in Geneva in October.

The United States and South Korea insist North Korea must halt uranium enrichment and allow in international nuclear inspectors before the six-party talks can resume. North Korea, along with its only real ally, China, has called for the talks to resume without conditions.

The six-party talks offer impoverished North Korea the chance to secure economic and humanitarian aid in return for abandoning nuclear ambitions.

Until North Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world, scraps its nuclear programme, the United States and South Korea are limiting aid to the country.

"I think North Korea will continue to argue that, 'OK, we are ready to go back to the six-party talks, but no preconditions,'" Mr Park said.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula were underscored at the weekend when North Korea threatened to retaliate if South Korea went ahead with military exercises in the Yellow Sea near their border.

In the exercises, the live-fire drills, which required about 1,000 island residents to be evacuated, took place yesterday without incident.

In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians in response to South Korean military drills on the island.

In March 2010, a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank near the sea border with North Korea. killing 46 sailors. An international group of experts found the ship was sunk by a torpedo from a North Korean submarine. North Korea has not admitted responsibility.

Also last year, North Korea said it had an advanced uranium-enrichment facility, taking it one step closer to the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

The Associated Press reported this week North Korea would hold a major ruling party political conference in mid-April, the month that marks 100 years since the birth of the country's founder, Kim Jong-il's father - Kim Il-sung, known as "Great Leader".

Kim Jong-un is expected to formally take over the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission and become the Workers' Party general secretary at the April conference.

dbardsley@thenational.ae