- Associated Press - Monday, September 19, 2011

SEOUL | A meeting Wednesday of the rival Koreas‘ nuclear envoys could provide crucial momentum toward restarting disarmament talks just months after the two countries were threatening to bomb each other into rubble.

Relations are still complicated, and wariness lingers as the envoys prepare for face-to-face talks in Beijing aimed at building on their surprise meeting in July. That was seen as a small breakthrough after months of acrimony.

There has been a recent flurry of diplomatic and cultural exchanges between the Koreas.

South Korea’s hard-line government is making public vows of a new flexible approach to Pyongyang, and the North’s state media have eased harsh rhetoric aimed at Seoul’s leaders.

Energy officials from the Koreas and Russia are conducting separate preliminary discussions on an ambitious plan to pipe Siberian natural gas through cash-starved North Korea to energy-hungry South Korea.

“Generally, there was a mood of optimism at the possible resumption of the talks,” said Georgy Toloraya, a regional director for Russkiy Mir Foundation in Moscow, who sat in on closed-door discussions with the North Korean nuclear envoy, Ri Yong Ho, at a seminar Monday in Beijing.

Skeptics see North Korea’s moves as a disingenuous “charm offensive” meant to extract aid and strengthen the government as leader Kim Jong-il works to secure a smooth transition of power to his 20-something son.

The goal of all the diplomatic wrangling is to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons programs, but first there must be a return to six-nation disarmament talks, which have been stalled since the North walked out in early 2009.

North Korea has pushed for months to restart the talks, but South Korea and the U.S. have been wary, saying first Pyongyang must abide by earlier nuclear commitments.

South Korean and U.S. officials want North Korea to halt its uranium-enrichment program, freeze nuclear and missile tests and allow international nuclear inspectors back into the country before the international talks resume.

“We are neither pessimistic nor optimistic” about the prospect for this week’s meeting in Beijing, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told lawmakers Monday.

Washington also insists that ties between the two Koreas must improve, which puts a lot of focus on any progress in Wednesday’s talks.

Linda Jakobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said the six-party talks need to resume soon or risk further delay because of upcoming elections in South Korea and the United States and an expected leadership change in China.

“After this dialogue, I am cautiously optimistic that they could actually restart the six-party talks [this year] because all of them are aware that if they don’t, it will be 2013 before they start,” Ms. Jakobson said.