BEIJING // South Korea has signalled its willingness for the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme to resume, after giving the cold shoulder to Chinese attempts to restart the negotiations.
The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, yesterday said the talks should take place with the aim of achieving "the dismantlement of [North Korea's] nuclear programme next year".
His comments follow several weeks in which Seoul has taken a more hardline stance by holding large-scale military exercises, an apparent reaction to criticism from within South Korea over what some saw as a weak response to last month's shelling by North Korea of Yeonpyeong island in which four died.
Soon after the bombardment, China offered to host an emergency session of the six-party talks to defuse tensions, but instead South Korea, Japan and the United States held their own discussions in Washington.
The six-party talks, which involve both Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia, have been suspended since April last year, when North Korea pulled out amid international criticism of a satellite launch it carried out that was widely seen as a ballistic missile test. On walking out of the talks, Pyongyang expelled nuclear inspectors and indicated it would resume its nuclear programme.
The talks had offered North Korea incentives such as aid, security guarantees, progress towards normalisation of relations with the US and the lifting of sanctions in return for abandoning the nuclear programme.
"[We] have no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme diplomatically through the six-party talks," Mr Lee was quoted by the state-affiliated Yonhap news agency as saying yesterday.
Mr Lee noted that Pyongyang had set 2012 as the deadline for North Korea to become a "great, powerful and prosperous" nation, making progress next year on cancelling the nuclear programme vital.
Following bilateral talks on Tuesday, Russia and China repeated their calls for the six-party discussions to resume, saying they were the most effective way of stabilising the peninsula.
The US, Japan and South Korea have however previously insisted North Korea must make verifiable steps towards dismantling its nuclear programme before the talks can restart, following concerns Pyongyang had reneged on previous promises to do so.
Shortly before the attack on Yeonpyeong, the existence in North Korea of a uranium-enrichment facility that potentially could produce material for nuclear weapons was revealed.
Yonhap yesterday indicated the suspension of such uranium enrichment and the return of nuclear inspectors to North Korea was a precondition for the restarting of the six-party discussions.
During a recent visit to Pyongyang, the New Mexico governor and a former US ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, said he had secured North Korea's agreement to the inspectors' return.
Mr Lee apparently wants "a way out" following the recent escalation of tensions, said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.
"He wants to be perceived as seeking a peaceful settlement of the issue," Mr Cheng said. "After a very hard line related to securing the confidence of the people, he thinks it's wise to demonstrate he's willing to seek a peaceful settlement through negotiation. He doesn't want to see the future escalation of tensions."
Assurances from China that it would exert pressure on North Korea to ensure the effectiveness of any restarted talks may have been behind Mr Lee's decision, Mr Cheng suggested.
Tensions between the two Koreas have been high since the sinking in March of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, which resulted in the loss of 46 lives, an event blamed on Pyongyang.
Mr Lee, who yesterday received 2011 policy reports from the foreign and unification ministries, said South Korea was also looking to secure international support for "peaceful reunification" on the peninsula.
When announced in advance by media earlier this week, this proposal received a hostile response from state-controlled newspapers in China, which accused Mr Lee of worsening tensions on the peninsula. Analysts have said Beijing is keen to maintain its ally North Korea as a "buffer zone" to a US-aligned South Korea.