- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

SEOUL | President Obama has proposed setting up a liaison office in North Korea next year in a step to ease tensions between the two rival states, Yonhap news agency said Friday.

The offer was in a letter for leader Kim Jong-il that Mr. Obama’s first envoy to the secretive state delivered when he went to Pyongyang last week for discussions aimed at reviving dormant nuclear disarmament talks, Yonhap quoted diplomatic sources in Beijing as saying.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency confirmed later Friday that the letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Kim had been handed to First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Sok-ju, considered the mastermind of the North’s nuclear policy, by U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth on Dec. 9. It gave no other details.

The State Department said it would not comment on diplomatic correspondence.

Mr. Obama said the liaison office could be established if Pyongyang ended its yearlong boycott of the talks and returned in the next few months to the discussions with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, Yonhap said.

North Korea, which has seen its broken economy become weaker since it walked out of the disarmament-for-aid nuclear talks, hinted it was ready to resume discussions after its top nuclear policy maker met Mr. Bosworth.

The sources quoted by Yonhap said the offer presents a face-saving opportunity for North Korea, which had declared the talks dead and said it would never go back unless Washington drops what Pyongyang sees as hostile plans to topple its leaders.

“North Korea is looking for a way to justify their return to the talks,” an unidentified source said.

The two countries, technically still at war and with no diplomatic ties, usually conduct their rare communications through North Korea’s U.N. mission in New York.

North Korea was hit with fresh U.N. sanctions after a nuclear test in May, its second.

The sanctions are aimed at halting its arms sales, which experts say are worth more than $1 billion a year and are a key component of the North’s estimated $17 billion annual economy.

Few expect the North Korean leader will ever abandon arms sales, which earn him the hard currency he needs for his “military-first” rule and the backing of senior cadres as he prepares for succession in Asia’s only communist dynasty.

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