Gates insists on bilateral Korean talks

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SEOUL — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday called for Pyongyang to engage with Seoul as a precondition to the resumption of six-party nuclear negotiations, but a South Korean official said that no foundation is yet in place for bilateral talks.

“With regard to next steps on North Korea, diplomatic engagement is possible, starting with direct engagement between the DPRK and the South,” Mr. Gates said before a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.

“When or if North Korea’s action shows a cause to believe that negotiations can be productive and conducted in good faith, then we could see a return” to the multilateral talks, Mr. Gates added.

At a subsequent meeting, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reportedly thanked Mr. Gates for last month’s U.S. support during defensive military exercises and stressed the importance of making progress on North Korean denuclearization before 2012.

That is the year North Korea has publicly set for becoming a “great and prosperous nation,” and marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the state’s founding father and “eternal president,” the late Kim Il-sung.

Mr. Gates has been touring Asia for a week, at a time when tensions are high on the Korean peninsula and with Japan increasingly suspicious of China, North Korea’s key ally.

The U.S. defense secretary’s message demonstrated that Washington and Seoul are in policy lockstep following two deadly North Korean provocations last year — a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship and an artillery strike on a South-controlled island.

However, a senior South Korean official said Friday that the North has not yet responded to the South’s request for bilateral talks and admitted that the conditions Pyongyang would have to meet to prove its good faith have not been communicated to the isolated regime, or even finalized by Seoul.

Speaking to foreign reporters Friday, the official said that preconditions for a resumption of six-party talks are on a dual-track for North-South bilateral talks. One track would address North Korea’s military provocations and the other would “confirm the sincerity on the part of North Korea of its denuclearization commitment.”

Pressed on how North Korea might confirm its sincerity, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Pyongyang has not yet responded to the South’s suggestion to enter the two-track bilateral talks.

Moreover, while the South wants “a couple of benchmarks to give us an assurance that [the North Koreans] are sincere,” the official made clear the benchmarks have yet to be calibrated. “We are developing these.”

As for a recent North Korean offer to sell South Korea used plutonium fuel rods, the official essentially dismissed it, saying that such a purchase would have to be “part of a wider framework.”

Likewise, he said that in insisting on its own format for bilateral discussions, Seoul was dismissing North Korea’s earlier offer of talks covering joint tourism and business projects in the North, Red Cross negotiations, and unspecified preparatory dialogues.

The Seoul administration has come under heavy pressure to take a firm stance toward the North following the 2010 attacks, which killed 46 sailors, two Marines and two civilians.

Mr. Gates was in South Korea after meeting with senior government officials in China and Japan, ahead of a summit between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington on Jan. 19.

U.S.-China relations are frayed, with Washington openly critical of Beijing’s apparent refusal to get tough with Pyongyang. The U.S. last month ignored Chinese disapproval to hold joint maritime exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea.

The day Mr. Gates arrived in China, he was greeted with the first-ever test flight of a Chinese stealth warplane, though he accepted Mr. Hu’s assurance that the flight was unrelated to his trip.

Recent Northeast Asian tensions have not been limited to the Korean peninsula.

Japan-China relations are strained following a clash between Chinese fishing boats and Japanese coast guard vessels off disputed islands in September. During that dispute, U.S. officials publicly raised the U.S.-Japan defense treaty, noting that it covers areas “administered” by Japan.

Against the backdrop of these developments, Tokyo and Seoul are cautiously discussing defense ties. And Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested three-way defense exercises during a trip to Korea last month.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa held talks with Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, this week on a two-day trip to Seoul, though the meetings hardly delivered stellar results: The only agreements reached were to continue talks on sharing intelligence and exchanging hardware.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara arrives in Seoul Saturday for a visit during which common approaches toward North Korea will be discussed.

While the two East Asian democracies share concerns over China and have separate defense treaties with the United States, bitter historical memories — Japan colonized Korea between 1910-1945 — and a disputed island in the Sea of Japan are highly emotive issues for South Koreans.

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