May 7, 2009 12:12 am

Seoul eyes bilateral route to Pyongyang talks

South Korea has raised the prospect of bilateral talks between North Korea and the US or China over Pyongyang’s nuclear arms programme, suggesting they could help revive stalled international negotiations.

Wi Sung-lac, South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, said in an interview with the Financial Times that a bilateral meeting could be “useful as long as it serves as a conduit for a return to six-party talks”.

His remarks represented an apparent softening in the stance of members of the six-party talks – the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia – that any meeting with Pyongyang should take place within a multilateral framework. North Korea surprised diplomats in April by saying it would never return to the talks on its nuclear ­programme.

Its defiant announcement followed a provocative long-range rocket launch over Japan and preceded a threat to carry out a second test of a nuclear device.

“I would say the prospect for the resumption of six-party talks is pretty bad, but I would not say that this course is dead,” Mr Wi said.

In the past, Washington, Seoul and Beijing had all used bilateral negotiations with North Korea to good effect, Mr Wi said.

However, he cautioned that any such meeting should avoid giving the impression that Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s dictator, had won a victory through his latest round of sabre-rattling.

Dennis Wilder, a senior Asia adviser to George W. Bush, the former US president, said Pyongyang recently rebuffed US efforts to set up a meeting with Stephen Bosworth, the new US envoy on North Korea. Mr Wilder said South Korea appeared to be responding to the increased tension with the North.

“The South Koreans are increasingly nervous about the North’s isolation because there are other steps that [Pyongyang] can begin to take here, [including] border provocations, provocations at sea and obviously more nuclear testing,” said Mr Wilder.

Mr Bosworth has begun a tour of Asian capitals to determine how to save the six-party talks.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has so far insisted on the six-party structure and demanded that Pyongyang end its stream of invective against South Korea, with which it has threatened to go to war.

Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo

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