US President Barack Obama told North Korea to stick to its commitment to abandon atomic weapons, throwing his support behind ally South Korea ahead of talks to try to calm tension on the divided peninsula.
Seoul announced on Wednesday that it would hold its first meeting with North Korean officials since a deadly artillery attack on an island in the South in November.
“On the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons,” Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
The two Koreas will meet at the border truce village of Panmunjom on February 11 for preliminary military talks to discuss last year’s two deadly attacks against the South’s Cheonan warship and the island of Yeonpyeong, Reuters reports.
Seoul has held out the prospect of high-level military talks, possibly at ministerial level, if Pyongyang accepts responsibility for the attacks and agrees not to carry out such provocations again.
North Korea’s foreign ministry said, without referring directly to the South’s proposal for nuclear talks, that it was prepared to engage in any form of dialogue as long as it helped to reduce tension.
“It is our position that each party eliminate actions that will be seen as provocation by the other side by building confidence through dialogue and negotiations, and we are prepared to work to make that happen,” an unnamed ministry spokesman said in comments carried by the official KCNA news agency.
North Korea denies it had anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan and says the South provoked its artillery attack.
“To establish peace on the Korean peninsula and see true development of North-South relations, the North must accept these proposals,” a South Korean unification ministry spokesman told a news briefing.
The South also wants separate bilateral talks with the North to ascertain its sincerity about denuclearization, an effort that comes as the Pyongyang urges regional powers to resume aid-for-disarmament negotiations — so-called six-party talks — it walked out of two years ago.
Few believe the North has any intention of honoring its 2005 pledge to denuclearize, citing revelations last November about its uranium program which give it a second route — alongside its plutonium program — to make a nuclear bomb.
Washington and Beijing, the North’s only major ally, have both pressed the two Koreas to resolve their latest standoff before returning to the broader six-party process.
But analysts doubt the North will change its stand on the Cheonan attack, in which 46 sailors were killed, by admitting responsibility.
More likely, they say, Pyongyang may indicate regret about the killings of civilians during the Yeonpyeong attack.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg arrived in Seoul on Wednesday to discuss North Korea’s recent efforts to restart dialogue, as well as Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program.
“We’re beginning to make progress in persuading all the parties that we need to see concrete steps and sincere moves by North Korea to move forward, and if North Korea is prepared to move in that direction than we are prepared to do so as well,” he told reporters.
Steinberg will also visit Japan and China.